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New UK agency embraces the ‘final frontier’

24 March 2010

The long awaited UK Space Agency is now a reality – or, at least, will be so on April 1 when it is officially opened for business. The Agency will eventually take over responsibility for policy and key government budgets for civil space activities, including the European Space Agency (ESA) subscriptions currently funded by the research councils. It will also manage major EU projects including GMES, Galileo and the EU Satellite Centre currently funded by DEFRA, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence respectively.

Underpinning the Agency is a new GBP40m International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) to be sited with the similarly long awaited ESA showcase facility at Harwell, which was opened last July. This is expected to provide a central hub for British space activity and will be funded through public and industry investment. ISIC’s initial activities will be to exploit the data generated by earth observation satellites, make use of space data to understand and counter climate change, and advise on the security and resilience of space systems and services.

The space and satellite industry is one of the UK’s unsung success stories. It supports 68,000 jobs both directly and indirectly, and contributes GBP6bn to the economy. At the ISIC launch, Science and Innovation minister Lord Drayson said the UK Space Agency will give the sector the “muscle” it needs to fulfil its ambition. Britain’s space industry is a recession-beating enterprise, which he believes has the potential to turn over GBP40bn a year, creating 100,000 jobs in just 20 years.

Pam Alexander, chief executive at the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), which leads the space sector on behalf of the nine regional development agencies (RDAs), endorses Lord Drayson’s predictions, revealing that the space industry is currently growing three times faster than the rest of the economy. “The new funding for the International Space Innovation Centre, which includes GBP6m investment from SEEDA, confirms Harwell's position as a centre of excellence,” she says. “The UK is firmly on the global map in this internationally competitive industry."

The UK is certainly no laggard in this sector, and while we may not have the individual capability to provide launch vehicles and associated infrastructure, nor the space budgets of France, Germany and Italy - we do lead in terms of payload. Our capabilities in terms of special instrumentation and satellite technologies are prime examples.

A major sector player, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) welcomed both the British government's response to Lord Drayson's Space Innovation and Growth Strategy report and an accompanying announcement by Lord Mandelson promising support for a small satellite programme to showcase state-of-the-art technologies to the world. This is the ‘TechDemoSat’, which will be funded by the government's Technology Strategy Board with support from the RDAs. The mission will demonstrate the capabilities of advanced small satellite technology for scientific and commercial applications - something that SSTL has pioneered over many years.

SSTL chairman Sir Martin Sweeting, Executive Chairman hailed the announcements as an important step for UK space, which both the space sector and the nation should celebrate. “Our space industry is both technologically advanced and highly competitive; we have a successful track record and the UK economy cannot afford to miss out on this growing commercial market,” he says.

“Space is an increasing part of our everyday lives and appropriate government support for innovation by industry before it reaches commercial maturity is critical to ensure that the UK will continue to change the economics of space for the benefit of the nation and the tax-payer. Industry is ready to invest in the future of space for the UK, but government needs also to create the right environment for it to flourish".

Les Hunt


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