UK government: the final space frontier?

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When the Farnborough air show began, spaceflight was a dream. Sixty years on, it is the 21st century and satellites are delivering commercial services, but for the UK space industry it is not the final frontier that is challenging, but the world of government.

After a 2003 government sector analysis report on the aerospace industry, a 2004 technology plan and two civil space strategies within five years (with another in the works), the UK industry wants to persuade the government that its focus on services on Earth, not just space, makes it a good investment.

"I would like to see a formal industry-government review looking at policy and the wealth creation space can achieve, to show how a satellite infrastructure can also help the government deliver, and I would like it to be reviewed by the prime minister," says Colin Paynter, managing director of the UK arm of European space company EADS Astrium.

This formal review could be the outcome of the next industry-developed strategy that the government wants the sector to draw up. This specific action was a recommendation of the second of two recent civil programme plans, the "UK Civil Space Strategy 2008-2012 and beyond", which was published in February by the UK government's co-ordinating body, the British National Space Centre (BNSC).

Industry value

UK industry has already produced its 2006 Case for Space report for the government that sets out the value the industry has for the economy. It says the sector supports 70,000 jobs and contributes £7 billion ($13.8 billion) to the economy, including downstream services as well as upstream manufacturers.

The industry argues these figures prove it can provide a better rate of return for wider economic growth with the investment of government money than other industrial sectors.UK representative body UKspace produced the Case for Space report. John Auburn, the organisation's chair and Vega group business development director, says: "As the [2008-12 civil] strategy recognises for the first time, the UK space industry is one of the highest value-adding sectors in Britain, employing one of the most highly skilled workforces, and is six times more research and development intensive than the UK average."

The UK builds satellites for telecommunications and Earth observation services and ground segment equipment both as an original equipment manufacturer and as a supplier of spacecraft subsystems, components and payload instruments.

The AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe space office's strategy, technology and economic affairs analyst Pierre Lionnet sees the UK's strength in two areas. He says: "The UK is primarily geared towards the military. There is a high level of specialisation in telecoms."

satellite-skynet2 
 ©EAOS
The UK's armed forces have their own satellite communication system, Skynet, but the MoD will not discuss its space infrastructure assets.

The industry engages in lobbying, with reports such as the Case for Space, because the UK government's industrial policy has the characteristics of a venture capital fund. Every industrial sector has to bid for funding lines that come under broad multi-sector headings such as "complex systems" and justify why they are a better investment choice.

Technology driven

Other developed, and developing, countries view aerospace as a strategic asset that is automatically assumed to produce technologies that spawn new industries and inspire schoolchildren to take up science and engineering. This means companies in other countries get government help in developing new technology with which to compete in the institutional and commercial markets.

The UK industry's institutional markets are domestic and regional, through the UK government and European Space Agency respectively. The UK government spends over £200 million a year on its civil activities, two-thirds of which is spent through ESA. However, the domestic institutional market also includes the UK government's military spend.

The UK's armed forces have their own satellite communication system, Skynet, but the Ministry of Defence will not discuss its space infrastructure assets or budgets. While Skynet is publicly acknowledged, it was only during the UK parliamentary testimony sessions for the latest civil strategy that the MoD expressed interest in operationally responsive space capabilities, such as the ability to quickly place satellites in orbit for a range of needs.

The MoD's 2006 Defence Technology Strategy refers to satellites as a priority technology, but gives no more details. Despite the secrecy, the UK military use of public-private partnership space based-telecommunications is an example of services the industry wants government to recognise.

Skynet is operated by EADS Paradigm Services and the company can sell spare capacity to third parties. Skynet 5 is the fifth in a series of milsat telecoms projects, but Paynter would like to see that end. Instead, EADS would provide a service to government that simply upgrades the capability as a matter of course rather than through large-scale projects.

"Most of EADS Astrium's profit is driven by the Paradigm business," says Lionnet. "The UK is a trend setter [in public-private partnership government communications]." The international commercial market sees the UK provide satellites through EADS Astrium and Surrey Satellite Technology, which is being purchased by EADS, subject to competition analysis by the European Commission.

National programme

As well as the US and European competitors, such as the Franco-Italian joint venture Thales Alenia Space and Germany's OHB Technology, it is a market that is seeing new entrants, particularly from China and India. They have the advantage of cheaper labour and can build satellites and launch them. Auburn warns: "We will have to work hard to keep up. We will need to work in partnership with government."

That partnership is in technology development. The 2008 strategy calls for a national space technology programme. Auburn and Paynter welcomed the proposal, but after the industry asked for £15 million a year, the Astrium director now has doubts about the effectiveness of the programme that he fears will have a budget closer to £4 million.

"It is supposed to be run through the Science and Technology Facilities Council and that has had its own budgetary issues. I think [the programme] will start underfunded."

Spending review

This underfunding is despite the civil space budget's expected rise by 15%, although the BNSC has not confirmed that figure. Last October the UK government set out its spending plans to 2011 in what it calls the comprehensive spending review. The review figures for the civil space budget were not released then or with the publication of the 2008-12 strategy in February, because of the ESA ministerial meeting in November.

The UK is still negotiating its depth of commitment to the agency's programmes and has to make decisions on its level of involvement in the European Union/ESA joint initiatives that are the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Earth observation programme, Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES). These are seeing new technological capabilities developed specifically for these new services.

Whether or not the UK decides to increase its participation in Europe's navigation and Earth observation endeavours, the country's ESA membership includes funding of the agency's Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) programme. Auburn says: "Industry welcomes [the strategy's] recognition of the importance of government investment in technology, in particular their investment in the [ESA] technology programmes."

A demonstrable example of the output of ARTES is the c120 million ($187 million) Highly Flexible Satellite (Hylas) project. With £23 million from the UK government in 2005 for ARTES 3, which spawned Hylas, and c34 million from ESA, the telecommunications spacecraft is to be built by Paynter's company using a small satellite platform from the Indian government's commercial space arm Antrix. UK based-Avanti Communications won the contract for Hylas and is selling its capacity. The satellite is to be launched by the US company Space Exploration Technologies' in-development Falcon 9 in 2009.

However, according to industry sources, it saw severe cuts in the UK's ARTES contribution, with government funding dropping from £17 million a year in 2005 to £11.3 million in fiscal years 2006 and 2007. Industry is lobbying for a return to the 2005 levels as a minimum.

For Lionnet, Hylas represents a continuation of the country's specialism in telecoms, with that sector "representing 76% of the UK's business", while he says the industry has a limited participation in Earth observation and navigation. Because of this narrow specialism, industry wants the UK to increase its GMES financial involvement. At the parliamentary evidence sessions for the civil strategy, ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain said he "would like more UK support for Earth observation, environment and security. The UK does not have its place there [yet]."

Dordain also described the UK's situation within the agency as an "anomaly" because "the UK has the second-largest GDP [of member states], but is only fifth or sixth in [ESA membership] contributions".

Despite this lobbying, government department prevarication on financial contributions has diminished the UK's involvement. For the c3 billion-plus Galileo programme, the UK has pledged c31 million as part of its portion of the ESA contribution. Paynter says: "I'd like to see the UK pushing at the European Commission level. It would be bad if our voice was diminished."

Industry knows that it could lose a good opportunity for institutional work that delivers technology that helps it compete in the international commercial market if the UK government does not take a more active role in both of these programmes.

The other unknown for UK industry is the UK's future role in exploration beyond its commitment to the changing ExoMars Martian rover mission. With ESA studying possible collaboration with NASA and other agencies for robotic and manned Moon missions later in the next decade, the UK has been seeking a role within the European effort or bilaterally with other countries.

Technology company Qinetiq - one of the UK's main space industry players, according to Lionnet, along with Astrium and services company Vega - has already tested lunar surface penetrating missiles that would be used by the proposed Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment mission. MoonLITE is proposed as a NASA/BNSC mission. Another possible development is a government decision to be involved in human spaceflight.

While the UK may provide robotic systems in support of astronaut missions to the station or future flights to the Moon in the 2020s, a decision on a UK astronaut may be taken later this year.

Space tourism

Before the period for the new civil strategy ends, the UK may have become a leading player in the emerging space tourism industry. The BNSC is conducting a review of its launch licensing laws because of the near-term prospect of Sir Richard Branson's suborbital venture Virgin Galactic starting operations in 2010.

The UK's obligations under the outer space treaties it has signed means the government is responsible for launches involving UK citizens. Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn has already joined the BNSC's advisory council. Despite the high profile of Virgin Galactic's space tourism plans, the rest of the industry just wants government to understand and support its ability to quietly deliver benefits to life on Earth. n