The challenges, developments, and future of the UK space sector

Martin Barstow, Principal Investigator for the SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT), discusses the current and projected outlook for the UK space sector.

The UK space industry has seen major transformations in recent years and is a vital part of the UK economy, worth over £16.4bn per year and employing over 45,000 people in diverse and exciting roles. It is now well-positioned on an upwards trajectory for further growth within the next decade, as cemented by the UK’s first ever National Space Strategy published in 2021. The Strategy aims to combine the UK’s strengths in science and technology, defence, regulation, and diplomacy to enhance the nation’s space economy. This strategy identifies five goals and the activities that government, academia, and industry will need to take to achieve them. The goals are: to grow and level up our space economy; to promote the values of Great Britain; to lead pioneering scientific discovery and inspire the nation; to protect and defend our national interests in and through space; and to use space to deliver for UK citizens and the world.

Supported by Research England, the Scottish Funding Council, and the UK Space Agency, The SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT) is heavily integrated within the UK’s efforts to drive its space sector. SPRINT is a unique partnership of top UK space universities, industry, government agencies and the investment community dedicated to supporting the growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in the UK through the commercial exploitation of space data and technologies. It is delivered by a consortium including founder members – led by University of Leicester, University of Edinburgh, The Open University, University of Southampton, and University of Surrey – and associate members including City, University of London, Durham University, Kingston University, University of Bristol, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow, University of Leeds, and University of Strathclyde.

To find out more about the work of SPRINT, alongside the current and projected outlook for the UK space sector, The Innovation Platform spoke to Martin Barstow, Principal Investigator for SPRINT.

Martin Barstow, Principal Investigator at SPRINT

What is the current outlook for the UK space sector and how has this developed in recent years?

The outlook for the UK is currently very positive, although there are some challenges. In the past decade, UK government has woken up to the importance of the space sector from an economic perspective. However, more recently, the importance to government sectors such as defence and environment has also become clear.

Therefore, government funding decisions and regulation are developing the environment for the growth of space activities. Alongside this, the UK Space Agency has supported the growth of regional clusters, broadening the range of companies involved in the whole of the space economy, from upstream to downstream applications. Some of these, such as Space Park Leicester, have levered non-space capital from local growth funds and agencies such as Research England to create facilities that can support economic growth in space.

SPRINT is a successful key intervention that is linking universities to SME space companies to use academic expertise, helping their growth and sustainability.

How can research and technological development support the growth of the sector?

The space economy is a hugely competitive environment internationally. Therefore, development of new ideas, techniques, and technologies to help the UK gain a good share of projected growth is essential. There is a wide range of technologies, from sensors of various kinds to the application of modern manufacturing technologies that lower costs of access to, and operation in, space. However, an important factor is to provide support to programmes that enable the transfer of these ideas quickly from development to implementation.

One of the key pillars within the UK’s National Space Strategy, that was launched last year, is to ‘grow the UK as a science and technology superpower’. What potential does the UK hold to stand out as a key player within the global space economy?

The UK is already world-leading in space science and exploration and has a strong base from which to be a key player in the global space economy. However, to build on this position requires not only effective financial support for development programmes in support of space systems but also an efficient regulatory structure for space activities – e.g., for launchers and launch sites – that safely promotes space activities but does not provide undue constraints that harm our competitiveness. The UK has great potential, with its growing space infrastructure and unique capabilities. However, we are in a race and speed is of the essence.

What are the main challenges that the UK space sector is facing currently?

Getting appropriate levels of funding is always a challenge, but particularly so in the current international climate. However, ensuring that relevant and effective development support is in place is an urgent activity. Another challenge is getting to the end of the regulation process to allow launch from the UK. This has been slower than is ideal and may allow other countries to gain business at our expense. There are examples of UK-based companies moving into Europe to take advantage of favourable support packages.

What are the most significant recent developments within the sector and what benefit will they have for businesses in the sector?

The development of space launch is probably the most significant achievement, dramatically changing the role of the UK. Launch slots are scarce but will provide new opportunities for the UK and give us a significant advantage. Launch sites require a raft of support services and further development of the satellite supply chain, which should largely be focused on companies within the UK.

Martin Barstow
Principal Investigator
Space Research and Innovation Network for
Technology (SPRINT)

Please note, this article will also appear in the eleventh edition of our quarterly publication.

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