Nick Shave is the Chair of UKspace. This is a sponsored post by UKspace.
As Her Majesty delivered the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister enthused about putting “rocket boosters under our space programme” and the Government unveiled plans to launch a comprehensive UK Space Strategy. Last week that strategy was published, just in time for the biennial UK Space Conference. Crucially, given that satellite technology is key to monitoring and managing climate change, the promised document has also come before COP26 kicks off.
The industry’s verdict on the long-awaited strategy? It’s a promising start but ministers still have significant work to do.
There is certainly no shortage of ambition. Upon publishing the document this week, the Government set out the aim of building “one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world”. To make that happen, however, the new strategy must focus efforts on expanding our world-leading strengths in science and engineering into new and emerging growth markets worldwide.
This requires the Prime Minister to turn warm words into sustained investment with industry in new strategic and commercial projects. That means serious and sustained funding in space has to be baked into next month’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
With the right investment, what we need is a cross-government, sustained National Space Programme. And we need this urgently, just to stand still. Space keeps our country moving and working, enabling all mobile services, transport systems, business communications and working from home. Satellites operating in orbit right now are responsible for over £300bn of our national economic activity, including enabling internet-based communications, sat-nav and GPS services as well as digital business.
The sector is also key to the growth that will be defining the future world economy, including in areas like clean energy, robotics and artificial intelligence. In addition, space jobs are spread around the country, so growth in this sector supports the ‘levelling-up’ Prime Ministerial priority.
Space will also be critical to delivering Net Zero. Space-based technologies and space-derived information are central to climate knowledge, science, monitoring and early warning. Indeed, 35 of the 45 essential climate variables defined by the heads of UN Climate Change are measured from space. In the future, new applications of satellite data, combined with satellite positioning and communications technologies will help drive down carbon emissions in commercial aviation, global shipping and smart, green cities of the future, as well as delivering the capabilities required to manage the devastating effects of the climate emergency to communities up and down the country and around the world.
By investing in satellite technology to tackle climate change, the UK could be a big winner in the new space race. As previous work by UKspace has shown this could enable a green jobs revolution here in the UK with roles ranging from extreme weather data scientists, natural disaster hotspot monitoring, environment investment analysts for the agricultural sector, space-data enabled crop management and efficient air traffic control systems.
The latest available figures show that the UK space industry continued to grow before the pandemic hit. Total UK space industry income grew to £16.4 billion in 2018/19, a growth rate of 2.8 per cent per annum since 2016/17. But the rate of growth is slowing, with the forecasted estimate for 2019/20 at £16.6 billion, a growth rate of only 0.8 per cent.
If we do not fund the space industry at the level needed to unleash its potential then we can expect growth to slow further. This would prevent us from moving forward while other nations make great leaps forward, spelling disaster for the UK’s international standing in this highly strategic sector. It would also prevent the Prime Minister from making real progress on meeting his priorities here in the UK. This really is a golden opportunity to invest in order to reap significantly larger benefits in return.
The National Space Strategy is welcome and offers hope, but the reality is that space is now a global, strategic contest and the UK is falling behind, spending less of its GDP than our peer competitors, like France, Germany and Italy. In the Indo-Pacific region, China is forging ahead with significant civil, commercial and military investment in space, highlighting the strategic nature of the sector.
We need to get on the front foot with world-leading space capabilities, technology and services to sell to the rest of the world and to protect our interests. With the right investment, the new space strategy can ensure we do that and ministers will be applauded for putting space at the heart of Government policy.
Yet, while we now have lift off towards boosting the UK’s role in the new global space race, we still have a long way to go to reach our destination. To get there, we now need serious investment and a strategic National Space Programme to further embolden ministers to seize the opportunity offered by the space sector.