A year ago, the UK government launched its National Space Strategy – a document which, in typical Johnson-era rhetoric, saw the UK as a “galactic Britain”, in part because of its membership continues at the European Space Agency (ESA). (If anyone doubted it, the government’s own figures showed a return of around £10/$10 for every pound/dollar invested in the ESA.)
As the strategy explained to the kind of skeptics who tweeted, “Why do we care about space when people can’t afford to heat our homes? (an understandable perspective in troubled times):
Satellites and space activities enable navigation, weather forecasting, power grid monitoring, financial transactions and better public services. The satellites also support television services for millions of UK households as well as other digital communications.
The UK space sector is growing faster than the rest of the UK economy, and the average worker in the space sector is 2.6 times more productive than in other sectors. It is worth over £16.4bn a year, employs over 45,000 people and the satellites underpin £360bn a year of wider economic activity.
It’s understood? Since then, however, satellite provider Inmarsat has released a 2022 report lamenting people’s continued lack of understanding of the benefits of space technology, including business leaders. Satellites and satellite services, communications, maintenance and complex payloads are all key areas for the UK space economy.
Just before the release of the space strategy last autumn, another UK satellite and a ‘space as a service’ company, In-Space Missions, headquartered in Hampshire, were acquired by the giant defense and aerospace BAE Systems. The objective of this agreement was to bring greater security, reliability and configurability to satellite constellations, both in the field of defense and in the civil field.
Founded in 2015, In-Space estimates that the global space technology market could be worth up to $1 trillion by 2040, tripling its current value. So, a year after the launch of the space strategy, what does this homegrown player think of the UK’s progress in a market increasingly dominated by American entrepreneurs like SpaceX supremo Elon Musk? And how does the company view its own progress?
Doug Liddle is the CEO of In-Space Systems. He says:
We came together to embrace the whole “new space” ecosystem and approach and consider how we might apply “old space” thinking to new space issues. Many of the teams in the new space are in their twenties, they’re fresh-faced, and they haven’t made the usual mistakes yet. We come with a similar level of enthusiasm to find the innovative things that can really solve today’s problems.
Our idea is to start putting reconfigurable means into orbit from the ground. Thus, the satellite becomes more like an iPhone or a smartphone. You can place the infrastructure in space and then program it from the ground to behave as you want it to.
And that means we can put multiple clients on one satellite, which means we can dynamically reassign the satellite to behave differently, depending on the emerging situation. This could be a business situation, but it also applies to the security and defense world.
So, among other areas, In-Space focuses on the technology hotspot of smaller, more dynamic and durable satellites, rather than the large systems that are often launched into orbit and dropped on Earth a few years later. A conversation with BAE last summer persuaded the two companies that they were working in the same direction, which led to the acquisition.
He keeps on:
The idea that we clung to early on is that satellites need to be flexible and reconfigurable because more and more often there are a lot of small or new companies putting systems in space, but with an uncertain market, and without the ability to necessarily build a spacecraft that would work and be able to handle all the regulatory aspects.
A space first for Europe
Another type of spacecraft is also an important area for Britain. The UK is set to boost its galactic ambitions in October with the first-ever space rocket launch from British soil. The horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall, via a modified Virgin Orbit 747 aircraft (which will carry the rocket over the Atlantic like a missile), will be the first European space rocket launch in history. And In-Space will make history by having two of its Prometheus-2 cube satellites (cubesats) among the payloads. Liddle says:
It will happen next month. But what we’re looking at for the UK are a number of other spaceports that also allow vertical launches. At the top of Scotland, on the A’Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland, a spaceport is being built. There’s also one on Shetland, which would allow us to launch vertically – the traditional concrete launch pad with a rocket. There’s so much going on.
And for In-Space too, Liddle explains:
BAE Systems and In-Space launch the Azalea cluster of four satellites. Each will have different sensors on it. We will consider synthetic aperture radar [SAR]visible light at different resolutions and the ability to collect RF information from the ground.
The goal is to provide timely and actionable intelligence, which is essential for military operations and civilian applications such as disaster response. Unlike conventional single-use satellites, the cluster can be fully reconfigured in orbit, in line with company strategy.
We are not talking about listening to people’s phone calls, but about being able to detect if someone is using a cell phone or someone is using a VHF radio, for example. You will be able to create a really complete and interesting picture of what is happening on the ground, which will then be complemented by the possibility of performing on-board processing.
We use machine learning on board satellites. Then that data can be brought back either as a much smaller chunk that might just give us latitude and longitude and an indicator that something interesting is going on, or we can bring all the data back.
So how military-focused has In-Space been since acquiring BAE last year? Has this changed the main mission of the company? Liddle says:
Yes, but not in the way one would expect. We were already quite focused on defence. And throughout the pandemic, the Department of Defense was stepping up and becoming more interested in what could be done, so we had started taking on a lot of defense work during the pandemic, until the time of the acquisition.
In addition to the Prometheus-2, we are also building the Titania satellite [a laser-based, 10 Gbps optical communications demonstrator] for the Defense, Science and Technology Laboratory [DSTL].
But following the acquisition, we have reached an agreement that for some of these satellites we will focus more on the civil and commercial aspects, while BAE itself will take more initiative with defense customers.
So what does Liddle think of the UK’s progress so far with the space strategy, and how is the deteriorating economic environment impacting the sector – if at all? He says:
There have been some very interesting and bold statements made in the last year and this – including in defense space strategy . But the devil is in the details now. We are moving quickly in both of these strategies towards the implementation phase.
But obviously, the uncertainty within the government does not help to move quickly. We now need to see how BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy] responds to the space, because obviously there’s a whole bunch of new people in there. But as far as the UK Space Agency is concerned, they seem to be moving at a good pace.
Certainly, no one refunds anything. In terms of the defense space strategy, we see things happening, but the national space strategy is moving a little slower. If I were to give them a report card, it wouldn’t be an A, but it would be a solid B.
One of many promising UK start-ups in a dynamic and exciting industry. But while no one can fault the UK’s ambition, the constant political upheaval in Whitehall leaves many in the UK wondering what’s next on Earth, hampering bold strategic plans.