UK space odyssey blasts off

The space sector is one of the great successes of the UK economy. Fiona Murchie reports from the CBI Annual Conference on how the industry is planning ahead to meet future science and engineering skills needs.

UK space odessey

Source: NASA via Creative Commons

Katherine Courtney is chief executive of the UK Space Agency (UKSA), which is sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Speaking at the CBI Conference in London to share the message that the UKSA was much wider than people thought, she put paid to the common perception that the agency was only about building rockets and sending astronauts into space.Collaboration between the UKSA and the European Space Agency (ESA) resulted in Major Tim Peake’s being part of the voyage to the International Space Station and his return this summer, which generated so much excitement and interest. There was no doubt, said Katherine Courtney, that Tim Peake had inspired children, and inspiring the next generation was one of the key goals of his mission. "He is a fantastic poster boy for the UK Space Agency," she proclaimed.However, she explained, "So many of the things we take for granted every day are reliant on space: TV, broadband, mobile phones, satnavs – they’re all underpinned by space systems and assets. Even the timing signals for the trades on the London Stock Exchange come from satellites. That’s what determines whether the trade is made a second before the market closes or not."There are also many spin-offs which benefit the business and commercial world, from research and development to technological advances made in the space sector."Being able to do those big collaborative missions, which we would not be able to afford on our own, not only gives us the opportunity to do amazing space science and push out the boundaries by participating in projects such as one to record trace gasses in the atmosphere of Mars, but also means that UK-based space companies can participate in those missions and can win contracts through participation in the European Space Agency."

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Other significant ESA projects include the ongoing LISA Pathfinder mission to test technology needed for a future gravitational wave observatory, and the ExoMars probe launched earlier this year, which will search for evidence of life on Mars. Both of these have relied on significant input from companies based in Britain.Anticipating fears around future projects due to Brexit, Katherine Courtney said that, although the ESA did a lot of work with the European Union and the European Commission, "Our membership in the European Space Agency is in no way affected by the referendum outcome. The UK has had a long-standing leading role in the ESA, we’re one of the key funding members of the ESA, and we will continue to have a leading role."Ms Courtney revealed that she expected to have some "very interesting announcements to make because of that" in the near future.

Preparing for lift-off

The UK is now aiming for space launch capability. As announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, a UK spaceport is on the horizon before 2020. Likely to be for unmanned missions, it would significantly reduce the cost of launching satellites for UK companies.Katherine Courtney sees this development as hugely exciting because it drives much more frequent launches. Currently, only 11 countries have launch capability. The price point for going to space is coming down, but the cap on demand is that there aren’t many opportunities to launch, she explained. If the UK can do launches, then the investment money will follow.Part of Ms Courtney’s mission is to help young people to realise that there are three categories to space:
  1. Astronomy that transforms the experience of space.
  2. Robotics.
  3. Satellite ­– looking back at Planet Earth.
As soon as young people realise this, they start to see life sciences, chemistry, engineering and STEAM subjects differently, appreciating that there is an element of space for them, and they start to understand how they will contribute to society.A panel discussion followed, facilitated by Thomas Moore, health and science correspondent for Sky News. As well as Katherine Courtney, the panellists included Anu Ojha, director of the UK National Space Academy, Stuart Martin, CEO of Satellite Applications Catapult, Paul Kahn, president of Airbus Group UK, and Steve Smart, senior VP of space, defence, national and cybersecurity at CGI and chair of UKspace.Paul Kahn commented that his organisation provided 25 per cent of satellite telecoms. Innovation is part of the group’s DNA; it spends £500 million a year on research and technology in the UK and sustaining collaboration agreements with more than 20 British universities.Galileo is Europe’s civil global satellite navigation system. In November, an Ariane 5 rocket launched four additional Galileo satellites, accelerating deployment of the new satellite navigation system. This mission brought the Galileo system to 18 satellites.Paul Kahn explained that satellites were coming down in size dramatically and were now seen as a truly world-class product. Small satellites allowed more capability, as more could be launched, allowing us to extract knowledge, which had a value in the marketplace.Mr Kahn affirmed the real breadth to UK Space and the demand for global communications, emphasising precision navigation and intelligent transportation systems. As he explained, with 33,000 aircraft crossing European skies, there was absolutely a need for the global communication systems that Airbus delivered.He emphasised the role of data, pointing out that, as 30 per cent of industrial output was influenced by weather, any way we could predict and analyse big data would make a difference to 30 per cent of industry. Observation, climate change and security would all be informed through such data. 

Filling skills gaps

Anu Ojha, director of the National Space Academy, was also on the panel. He is a great exponent of igniting the passion of teachers through professional development. The academy’s 30+ team of science teachers, project scientists and engineers trains teachers to use its methodologies to reach hundreds of students per teacher. They also provide masterclasses for secondary-school and college students.The National Space Academy is keen to invite more organisations to work with them to support the education and skills development of the UK’s next generations of scientists and engineers. Each year, nearly 7,000 secondary-school students and over 1,000 teachers participate in the academy’s intensive masterclass sessions and Continuing Professional Development programmes.Anu Ojha believes that "qualifications in science, engineering and mathematics are among the most valuable currency that young people can have in a world whose future economic prosperity is being driven by job roles requiring these fundamental skills".The results seem to be stunningly high. More than 80 per cent of space engineering alumni having gone on to degree courses in physics or engineering, or on to industry apprenticeships in engineering.The academy established the UK’s first full-time courses for students in space engineering, was instrumental in the development of the UK’s first state schools with space contexts embedded throughout the curriculum (space studio schools) and co-led the development of the national Higher Apprenticeship programme for the space sector.I briefly met Nigel Grainger, one of the first cohort of students finishing the full-time course in summer 2014. He is now on the Airbus Higher Apprenticeship programme based in Bristol."When I was looking at my options for an A Level course, I was put forward. The course gave me a practical side, hands on, with the BTEC aspect of the course, as well as the theory side in A Level maths and physics."Another student, Fahima Sayed, finished the space engineering course in summer 2015, and has gone on to study for a degree in aeronautical engineering at Loughborough University.The National Space Academy is part funded by the National Space Centre, the UK Space Agency, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Satellite Applications Catapult, and the Lloyds Register Foundation, with additional support from various UK space and aerospace companies.With Relocate’s continuing interest in education and schools and our commitment to supporting companies in developing and engaging talent, there must be a way of connecting the academy with our readership and supporting schools, education establishments and employers. If you would like to get involved, please email with your suggestions.

UK success story

Having spent eight years in the US, Katherine Courtney feels that the UK space industry may have been guilty of hiding its light under a bushel in the past. She hopes Tim Peake’s expedition and subsequent role as a space ambassador will help to change that, particularly by inspiring children to start down a path that could lead them to careers that use knowledge of STEM subjects.The UKSA’s position is that, if only a few thousand more children do this, the investment in Peake’s mission will have paid off. "From a pure economic perspective," Katherine Courtney said, "every pound of taxpayer funding invested in space innovation generates more than £10 in return to the UK economy. The productivity of people who work in the space sector way outperforms most other sectors in the UK. And every job in the space sector accounts for a further two jobs in the wider economy."Indeed, the UKSA has set out an ambitious target to grow the space industry from £9.1 billion in 2010 to £40 billion in 2030.The industry is now worth almost £12 billion a year, directly supports 37,000 jobs, and has grown at an average of nearly 9 per cent since 2000. Key players include well-established giants such as Astrium, the space subsidiary of aerospace and defence company EADS, Inmarsat, the telecommunications and satellite company, and Airbus Defence and Space."What’s fairly unusual about the UK market compared to the rest of Europe is that our space companies are all commercial companies," said Katherine Courtney. "They’re privately owned or publicly traded. That gives the UK a uniquely innovative environment. Those companies have to develop new products and services in order to generate the revenue streams that keep them alive. And I think that’s actually one of the strengths of the UK space sector, whether that’s established or new start-ups."We have a lot of innovation in the UK, and many advantages in terms of a business-friendly regulatory environment and tax offers that make it very attractive to invest. Those are things that government quite deliberately fosters, and will continue to foster."In her speech at the CBI, the Prime Minister outlined her plans for Britain to be "the global go-to place for scientists, innovators and tech investors". In the Autumn Statement, Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond confirmed a spend of £2 billion per year for science and technology. 

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