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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

UK space industry primed for lift-off

The UK commercial space industry could be worth £3.8 billion (Dh18.2bn) to the economy over the next decade, Farnborough audience hears

UK cabinet member Greg Clark (R), Prime Minister Theresa May (C) and Airbus CEO Tom Enders at the Farnborough Airshow. Mr Clark said the space industry could be worth almost $4bn to the UK. EPA
UK cabinet member Greg Clark (R), Prime Minister Theresa May (C) and Airbus CEO Tom Enders at the Farnborough Airshow. Mr Clark said the space industry could be worth almost $4bn to the UK. EPA

In a packed-out room at the Farnborough International Airshow, Elton John’s Rocket Man blares out on loop.

Assembled are a crowd of prominent space experts, buzzing at recent developments in the industry.

Graham Turnock, the CEO of the UK Space Agency takes to the stage, as the song's final words resound before the track is cut: "it’s going to be a long, long time".

“Now, I very much hope this won’t be the case,” laughs Mr Turnock.

On Monday, tens of millions of pounds of funding was announced to propel the British space industry into action. At the same time a remote peninsula in the north of Scotland was chosen as the location for the UK’s first spaceport. Wednesday’s meeting at Farnborough gave space experts and industry leaders the chance to celebrate the announcement, reveal further details about the Scottish space port and plot the way forward.

While the mood was high, no one could ignore the potential financial opportunity.

Mr Turnok and the government said the UK commercial space industry could be worth £3.8 billion (Dh18.2bn) to the economy over the next decade.

When the spaceport announcement was made, some might have conjured images of the UK sending spaceships manned by British people, perhaps to the moon or even, eventually, Mars. The reality is this won’t be the case, at least for a while. Now, the focus will be on tapping into the in-demand small satellite market, an industry where the UK has considerable expertise.

"We are one of the best countries in the world for the research, development, manufacturing and application of satellites - big and small. And when we see the expansion that is taking place, and the requirement that these satellites need to be launched into orbit - there is an obvious opportunity here for the UK and it must be grasped,” said Greg Clark, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Mr Clark recently announced £33.5 million in grants to help push forward plans to bolster the space industry and help launch flights from Scotland. Industry giant Lockheed Martin will be given £23.5m and previously unknown Orbix £5.5m to develop rockets and a launch site, with local authorities, capable of sending satellites into orbit by the early 2020s.

“We can design and build small satellites, this is something we are world leaders in and we believe we can turn that into applications people can use in their daily lives,” said Mike Taylor, satellite launch director at the UK Space Agency.

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“The launch is the gap and if we fill this then we have a lot to look forward to. We gain a whole launch eco system, ground services, new technology and innovation,” he added.

Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of analyst firm Bryce Space and Technology, added: "Some have the satellites, but having launch capabilities is something that very few have. This is what differentiates the UK from its competitors."

It is also hoped students will be spurred on to study engineering.

The government describes its Space Industry Bill, given royal assent on March 15 this year, as the most modern piece of space industry legislation anywhere in the world. It opened the way for British businesses to compete for spots at spaceports.

One expert, Joanne Wheeler, who has a long history with the European Space Agency and satellites, backed the government’s sentiment. “I used to be mocked for talking about the UK developing independent space flight. Now we don’t have to rely on a limited number of supply launches from abroad,” she said.

The UK needs to move quickly, however. “Time to market is absolutely key to us, there are lots of competitors out there. We need regular launches that are affordable,” said Patrick Wood, Director for International Business Development at Lockheed Martin Space.

The British space industry isn’t suddenly going to catapult above its friends at Nasa but Monday’s announcement sparked a surge of enthusiasm among politicians, industry leaders and businesspeople.

“This a collaborative plan in conjunction with companies like Lockheed and Orbix, and the government. We want people to be interested and excited. The spaceport will create hundreds of local jobs and the plans going forward are vast,” said Roy Kirk. Mr Kirk is the area manager of Sutherland, the sparsely populated Scottish region that will host the space port, at the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is the government’s economic and community development agency.

“This is a commercial opportunity and if we didn’t think we’d make profit we wouldn’t press ahead. We are not going to become Cape Canaveral and are aware of the scale," he said.

"Having said that, nothing great was ever achieved without ambition.”