An atmosphere of collaboration

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| The European | 30 March 2021

Joanna Hart of Harwell Space Cluster explains why the best way to grow the global space sector is by bringing together academia, business and government

The space race has never been more competitive than it is today. Once a two horse race, we now live in an age where the game has increased in both complexity and players. The space race began as a proxy Cold War: Russia sent the first satellite into space with Sputnik 1 and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but the breadth and scope of the space industry has increased dramatically since these first forays.

The UK is one such player. This would seem a considerable task given the public and private maturity of the space industry in the US and Asia. However, the UK has been swift to catch up, establishing the UK Space Agency (UKSA). The UK space sector has set itself the goal of capturing 10% of the global space economy by 2030, at which point the sector could be worth $109bn according to some estimates. The UK is already a leader in areas, such as small satellites, where the UK produces 44% of the global total.

The importance of this pledge is more critical to our day-to-day lives than one might assume. It’s easy to think that the space industry is geared towards sending people into space and exploring the outer galaxy, but the reality is what goes on outside our atmosphere, is critical to maintaining life within it. The world is reliant on space technology for Earth bound problems – satellites make telecommunications, broadband, television and GPS accessible in seconds. 

In fact, the utility of the space sector goes well beyond that. Forestry is one such area: with climate change threatening the life cycles of our forests, this technology will be critical to understanding and mitigating shortages. UK companies like Rezatec are already doing this: its solution combines satellite data with advanced AI, accurately informing where to direct ground-based resources. This includes forest inventory, carbon stock, and forest monitoring, which is crucial to mitigating losses from events such as wildfires and pest damage. Indeed, the critical nature of space technology is best illustrated by the current Covid-19 crisis.

Space technology is playing an important role in the response to the pandemic. Take for example Lanterne, which recently launched an app to assist with social distancing using artificial intelligence and satellite GPS data. GMV NSL, specialists in GNSS threat monitoring, are supporting emergency services by testing critical communications systems for vulnerabilities to ensure essential operations can continue uninterrupted. As UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway explains, the space sector has had a crucial impact in this time of need: “From new advanced software helping speed up cancer diagnoses to satellite communications connecting GPs to patients virtually, the UK space sector has been world leading in applying its innovations to supporting our brilliant NHS”.

The importance of cooperation

However, despite a wealth of innovation in the UK space sector, more needs to be done to ensure the industry continues to grow. The UK needs to be the first choice when it comes to growing existing and new space businesses, attracting inward investment and nurturing home-grown talent, driving the UK towards its collective space goal.

There is a tried and tested method to ensure this growth momentum is maintained. One of the challenges of space technology is that it requires close collaboration between academia, business and government. Space innovation has always thrived through national and international knowledge sharing, going right back to some of the earliest missions in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, this collegiate atmosphere persists to this day: the European Space Agency’s (ESA) current mission, ‘Mars Express’, includes Russian and Japanese instruments, uses NASA’s Deep Space Network to communicate with the Earth and the UK’s RAL Space provided the Payload Operation Service.

This illustrates how cooperation is essential to the development of the space sector, and not just on an international level. As the breadth of space technology’s uses expands, the ways in which businesses can draw upon outside expertise grows, too. So how do we fortify this collaborative atmosphere? By establishing knowledge-rich clusters, facilitating the exchange of expertise.

The Harwell Space Cluster is a flourishing example of this. It is home to large-scale science facilities such as the National Satellite Testing Facility, which has just received over £100m in UK Government investment. The cluster is managed by UKRI-Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and is often referred to as “the gateway to the UK’s space sector”. As a result, it is perfectly poised to attract these growing companies and help the UK meet its goal. Comprising 105 space organisations, including the UK and European space agencies, it is driving forward innovative startups in the sector who will be the next generation of space companies.

By bringing together established businesses, such as Thales Alenia Space UK and Lockheed Martin, as well as government agencies and space technology startups in close proximity, knowledge and skill sharing thrives. For example, The European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre UK started in Harwell and provides growing businesses with the funding, support, skills and state of the art facilities required to accelerate their development. Harwell is also home to large-scale facilities at STFC RAL Space and the headquarters of the Satellite Applications Catapult, which offers large and small companies the opportunity to create their route to market by facilitating cooperation between industry, research and end users. Among those who have benefitted is Deimos Space UK, enabling it to grow and offer a wide range of services across the sector, including satellite navigation, Earth observation and space situational awareness.

Clusters, such as the Harwell Space Cluster are going to be critical to the UK meeting its space sector goals – by recognising that businesses, large and small, stand to gain an enormous amount from each other. This is exemplified by businesses such as Astroscale, which is driven by a goal to remove some of the 23,000 pieces of space debris from our atmosphere. Through international cooperation it aims to keep space tidy for future satellites and exploration. Clustering provides business leads, access to ground-breaking research, one-of-a-kind facilities and networking, enabling businesses to rapidly accelerate their growth.

This method of bringing together academia, business and government is not new – in the US, there are organisations such as NASA Research Park, a shared-use research and development park based in California. Their ethos is pinned on the idea that space innovation cannot be achieved in isolation; that cooperation is essential for creating the technologies for use in space, but also those which support life on Earth.

Connections between clusters can also be as important as the clusters themselves. There is space activity all over the UK and Europe, and by housing space innovation together, access to national, international and private organisations is within reach for even early stage space businesses. As a result, it is crucial to support the growth of these clusters to develop the wider space industry ecosystem – by educating the public, academia and business that these hubs of innovation exist, we can continue to foster the growth of the industry and allow both the UK and Europe achieve their space goals.

The global space industry has transformed in the 21st century – the aims of governments and business have extended well beyond space flight. The applications of space technology are seemingly limitless, whether it be innovations in telecommunications, healthcare, agriculture or energy. In order to achieve this multitude of uses of space technology, it is critical that the existing atmosphere of collaboration is encouraged and formalised. Through clusters, the UK can realise its pledge and become a world-leading force in space technology.

About the author

Dr Joanna Hart is Development Manager at Harwell Space Cluster. www.harwellcampus.com

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