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A Route to Space for Liverpool and UK business?

2nd July 2014

As part of the International Festival of Business, the British Interplanetary Society returned to its birthplace of Liverpool for a day of discussion of doing “business in space” – Mark from Reddbridge Media attended out of curiosity, and found some real messages for the businesses, makers and experimenters of today and tomorrow.

Read his report here on the DoES blog.

More than 80 years ago, on Dale Street in Liverpool, the World’s longest running space advocacy organisation – the British Interplanetary Society – was formed. Of course, though, Liverpool is a city bursting at the seams with “World firsts”, so I suppose this fact, impressive as it is, is rather like water off a duck’s back to most readers.

However, what if someone said that the UK today is a World leader in space? Or that there are to be huge opportunities in the coming years for developing space-based products and ideas, without having to decamp to Cape Canaveral? You’d be a little more sceptical I’m sure.

These, though, are some of the very messages we heard from key leaders in the UK space industry, who met at a special event in Liverpool last Saturday as part of the International Festival of Business to outline opportunities to businesses and anyone looking to break into “the space race”, as they outlined an exciting vision of the future that sees the UK massively growing its space industry, and the potential for it to “democratise” and become accessible to an ever wider number of businesses.

It seems the UK really is leading from the front.

A race to space, a race for growth

Headline speaker Robert Waters from the UK Space Agency – a government department – addressed the delegates under the banner “Making the UK the Place for Space”, and told us the UK government is aiming to grab a 10% market share of the £400bn global space industry, and boost GDP by £34bn. Putting that into perspective, that’s almost equivalent to the entire annual economic output of a large city like Liverpool or Manchester. That’s certainly a lot of opportunity for those with the ideas and the expertise.

UK space agency six themes

Fantastically, Robert didn’t simply talk to us about big business, but spoke extensively about the opportunities for SMEs, including funding available to those with the right ideas, and how he and his team are looking to encourage “start ups”. The infrastructure to support the UK space industry – and education – is impressive, from Liverpool city region’s own Daresbury facility, through to the huge, awe-inspiring innovation park at Harwell. Some of these are facilities shared by the UK’s universities – facilities they could never afford on their own, but which enable students to enter this industry and lead.

ManSat’s Chris Stott appeared via video link from Houston, highly enthused at the future prospects for UK space industry, telling us how the UK is taking an “entrepreneurial leading role” in space, while others are simply using the technology we develop. It clearly delighted him to be able to tell us he was talking to us via a satellite made here, in the UK!

So, the stage is set – the UK is apparently already a great place to do space business. But how is this relevant to anyone who isn’t interested in donning a space suit and “boldly going”?

It was certainly interesting to hear from Ian Tracey, who is Head of Entrepreneurship at the Science & Technology Facilities Council, about the vast range of applications that “space technology” have been put to here on Earth, including the use of “micro-colloidal thruster technology” (!) to create a novel way of carrying out previously impossible “3D” biological simulations in the search for cures and a better understanding of the human body – which is kind of handy being that humans are (usually) three dimensional creatures. These sorts of wider applications aptly demonstrate the true benefits to us all of investment in space science, where the UK doesn’t simply go to space for the sake of it but out of a recognition of what it can do for us.

But looking at the aimed for growth of the industry, that 10% market share, it seems likely that this will need not just the genius of research, but more companies, more entrepreneurs, putting space technology to work for every day commercial gain.

The UK’s opportunities

Of course, not every company will have the financial might of Sky TV (who naturally rely on space technology to deliver their broadcasts into people’s homes), or Google who have just purchased Skybox, so there is a real incentive to see the cost of accessing space reduce, to enable that economic growth.

So, on this note, and looking to the future of space business the subject turned to miniaturisation: “nano-satellites” (which are actually satellites under 10kg, rather than invisible to the naked eye!). We all know how miniaturisation has transformed our World, from our TVs to our phones to our computers, so it’s rather easy to consider that a satellite that weighs around 1kg (as a “Cubesat”, which is a popular miniature satellite, does) is not just considerably less expensive than one weighing 500kg, but could in the future be powerful too, particularly when used in tandem with other similarly sized satellites.

There was a clear consensus that “smaller” was the future, with the quantity of these Cubesats being launched into orbit growing massively in recent years. There were questions about “space junk”, which you’d logically assume would be a growing problem, but these were encouragingly rebuffed by Dr Katherine Smith, lecturer at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, with talk not simply of dumping the redundant satellites of the future into space or the sea, but of controlling their removal from orbit, and even novel ways of possibly collecting things from space for reuse.

The UK Space Agency has developed a set of 15 priorities to help it achieve that 10% global market share, with one of those 15 being “Low cost access to space”; Chad Anderson, MD of the “Space Angels Network” seems confident that SMEs that launch small satellites will emerge.

The rapidly rising number of Cubesats entering orbit poses a difficult question for the space industry, though – namely, if there are only so many launches into space per year, there is naturally a finite number of satellites that can be launched. The number of satellites entering orbit will peak, and competition for those launch places available will undoubtedly intensify.

We were treated by Mark Hempsell of Hempsell Astronautics to the promotional demonstration film for Skylon – the British space plane concept waiting for £10bn of funding to make it a reality.

Skylon takes off like a normal aeroplane (although it needs a 5.5km runway), takes “payloads” into orbit, and returns to Earth again just like a normal aeroplane (including with potential to be adapted for passenger use) reducing costs in its operation and its own re-usability. He also showed how it could be equipped with USIS – the Universal Space Interface System – which is a British attempt to standardise the way the World’s spacecraft connect to each other, reducing costs and increasing flexibility and re-usability.

While we wait for that £10bn to appear from the UK government (and for Liverpool John Lennon Air and SpacePort to become a reality, as was mooted by a member of the audience), we can look closer to home for a UK company looking to get into the space game and harness the increased competition for launches in the form of Chris Atherton’s Liverpool-based “Route to Space”. His company (who also helped to organise this key event) specialises in developing low cost ways to prove satellite projects in practice, long before they get a launch date. As backers, investors and companies themselves will be looking to maximise their chances of success on every level, it seems likely his company is a smart idea entering the market at the right time.

After spending from 10am til 4pm listening to a never ending stream of opportunity and ambition, it was easy to imagine we’d need to recruit an army of space scientists to grow this industry at the required rate, so it really seemed appropriate for the last speaker to be Robert Christy who travelled to Liverpool to relay how, as a pupil of Kettering Grammar School, he was inspired to a lifetime of engagement with space science after their school experiments with satellites exposed the state secrets of the USSR’s space program!

The President of the British Interplanetary Society, Alistair Scott, tells us that a Space “A” Level has even been developed, but needs £1.5m in funding for implementation. As a nation looking to take a 10% share of a £400bn global market – that will need all the scientist-slash-entrepreneurs it can get – this seems small change: Just fund it now.

As costs do reduce and the opportunities do become more widespread, it is those who are inspired today to get into the science who will stand to directly benefit from being involved in this World leading industry – that’s a clear opportunity open to anyone with access to science education.

The panel and speakers

This is what Liverpool’s IFB is all about!

This was a really good, eye opener of an event; space is clearly an industry people ought to sit up and take notice of, and hopefully when the Brtish Interplanetary Society next “come home” to Liverpool we’ll have some great space-based entrepreneurial success stories to share with them too.

 

Notes:

“Perspectives on Space Enterprise” was presented by BIS North on Saturday 28 June 2014 at the World Museum Liverpool.

Host, facilitator, speakers and panel members:
Host – Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society,
Facilitator – Chris Atherton, Route To Space,
Robert Waters, Head of Industrial Strategy at the UK Space Agency
Chad Anderson, MD of Space Angels Network
Sam Adlen, Head of Business Innovation at the Satellite Applications Catapult
Ian Tracey, Head of Entrepreneurship at the Science and Technology Facilities Council
Dr Katherine Smith of Manchester University
Chris Stott of ManSat
Mark Hempsell of Hempsell Astronautics
Robert Christy of Zarya

Photography credit, thanks to:
Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society

Useful web addresses
(We are not responsible for content on other websites)
British Interplanetary Society – http://www.bis-space.com/
Route to Space – http://www.routetospace.com
Skylon – Skylon is a spacecraft by Reaction Engines http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/
Cubesat – http://www.cubesat.org
UK Space Agency – https://www.gov.uk/ukspaceagency
Space Angels Network – http://www.spaceangelsnetwork.com/
Satellite Applications Catapult – https://www.catapult.org.uk/
Science and Technology Facilities Council – http://www.stfc.ac.uk/
ManSat – http://www.mansat.com/
Hempsell Astronautics – http://www.hempsellastro.com/
Zarya – http://www.zarya.info/

Useful resources for download
UK Space Agency slide set as presented (thanks to Robert Waters of the UK Space Agency)
600dpi RGB Image of the panel and speakers (credit must be given to Alistair Scott if used)
600dpi RGB Image of the UK space strategy six themes (credit must be given the UK Space Agency if used)

This article was originally published at http://www.reddbridge.co.uk/articles/uk-route-to-space 

@reddbridgemark

 

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