West Midlands business have taken one giant leap towards the final frontier by contributing vital parts for satellites as part of the UK’s space race.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA), part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, has just 40 staff and is in the first year of full control of its own budget.
Speaking to the CBI in Birmingham Dr David Williams, chief executive of UKSA, said a number of companies were contributing technology.
These include MT Aerospace Satellite Products, which provides fuel tanks, Steelway Fensecure, which manufactures structural steelwork and Titanium Industries UK, one of the world’s largest stockists of titanium mill products.
“We keep trying to get Rolls-Royce interested in space planes and jet engines,” Dr Williams said. “It is a bit futuristic for them.
“The University of Birmingham is very active, Leicester University is involved in environmental sciences and climate change and Nottingham University in satellite navigation.
“And there’s the National Space Centre at Leicester. An aluminum extrusion company from the West Midlands was used on a Canadian radar satellite. Rolls-Royce and BAE have shown some interest.”
Dr Williams added: “We receive about £250 million a year. About 75 per cent of that is spent in industry, building satellites with our European counterparts. Some is spent at universities or in research agencies.”
There are areas where West Midlands businesses can get involved in the space industry, but there are barriers to entry, he said.
“They can get involved in software and precision components,” Dr Williams said. “It is a relatively high entry industry because you have to have a proven capability. We have regular industry briefings. It is not something you can open the door to tomorrow. It is the pedigree and credibility of the business that is important. Building a satellite is quite high on quality control.
“Software and climate services, as we move into carbon trading and things like that, will create business.”
The UK Space Agency works primarily with the European Space Agency (ESA) which has an equivalent of the UKSA in 19 countries.
Within the ESA, Germany, France and Italy have bigger space programmes than the UK.
“Nasa spends more on publicity than we do on space,” Dr Williams said.
“One of the aims of the UK agency is to work with other parts of government and industy to expolit these space assets, whether it is for science, society or commercial gain. In some sectors in telecoms we are the best in the world.”
Two of the EU’s future space projects include Galileo, a group of satellites for GPS services and another for environment and climate.
Dr Williams said there will be opportunities for business around the “reliability and liabilty” of future GPS technology. “China is catching up very fast with US capabilites,” Dr Williams said. “They build satellites like they are going out of fashion.
“They tend to pinch the technology. The real problem with China is technology transfer. Export control is never far from our thoughts. We do not give China the technology for space.”
Future projects for the UKSA include building a rover to “wander around Mars” and missions to look at the origins of the universe. The UK is also involved with a set of satellites to look at the Earth and “perhaps in another 20 years a mission that can bring back samples from Mars”.
In the near future Dr Williams said his agency would try to launch space flights from the UK to take advantage of commercial space tourism.
There are 53 spacecraft in orbit and 43 in development involving UK government funding.
The UK’s space sector contributes £7.5 billion a year to the UK economy, directly employs 24,900 people and supports a further 60,000 jobs across a variety of industries, according to UKSA.
The sector has seen a nine per cent growth per annum and has seven per cent share of the global market, the agency said.
UKSA predict the value of the British market to almost double, to £14.2 billion, by 2020.