Satellites and Commercial Applications of Space

People sometimes think of space as vainglorious conspicuous consumption not practical investment. But actually space has not just potential but practical value today. It is one of the most important and growing sources of data. Much of the data deluge is being generated by satellites, and even more data is being transmitted via satellite links. Google estimate that a third of web searches are about place and satellites are now crucial for accurate measurement of where we are and the condition places we care about are in. Satellites enable us to monitor an extraordinary range of environmental and meteorological changes affecting our planet, including: observing deforestation to enable the authorities to reduce illegal logging; measuring changes in polar ice so we can determine the impact of climate change; calculating the carbon dioxide emitted by coal fired power stations across the world; and producing deformation maps showing the impact of earthquakes within minutes. One of our new investments in e-infrastructure, the Centre for Environmental Monitoring from Space, will enable us to do more to analyse data sets and develop products and services that will help governments, business and the general public respond to environmental change. Drawing on satellite data, and combining it with data from groundbased and airborne sensors, will bring us closer to fulfilling the dream of a national environmental monitoring system.

Satellites and commercial space


At the moment the Met Office has more raw data than it can analyse rapidly despite having one of the country’s more powerful computers. The single most important determinant now of the accuracy of weather forecasting for the whole meteorological research community is the capacity of IT systems to handle satellite data. We will be playing a leading role in making the next generation of meteorological satellites and investing in the e-infrastructure to use the output.

After the very successful outcome for Britain of the fouryearly ministerial meeting of the European Space Agency, ESA’s
Telecommunications and Integrated Applications Directorate will be moving to Harwell, outside Oxford. Like Daresbury, Harwell Oxford became an Enterprise Zone in 2012 and is rapidly becoming a cluster of space-based research and businesses. It will also be the home of the Catapult Centre for applying space-based data. We are once more seen as a leading space science nation.

Britain was third into space, after the US and USSR. Our first satellite, Ariel 1, was launched in April 1962 on an American rocket, though within months it was disabled by an American atmospheric nuclear test. We developed our own launch capability and are the only country to have given up such a capability having developed it – much of it was then absorbed within what is now the European Space Agency’s Ariane programme. For a major advanced economy we have a very small public sector space programme – and indeed the UK Space Agency, bringing together our civil space programmes, was only formed in 2010.

This unusual history has given us distinct comparative advantages – in satellites, in new launch technologies and in industry structure.

British companies have focussed on making satellite technology more affordable with smaller, lighter-weight satellites that lower the cost of commercial launches. Surrey Satellites Technologies (SSTL), one of the UK’s single most successful university spinouts, is the world leader in high-performance small satellites. Roughly 40% of the world’s small satellites come from Guildford and now even smaller nano-satellites are coming from SSTL and Clydespace in Glasgow. Instead of a massive tractor type vehicle trundling across Cape Canaveral think of a courier with a small satchel delivering a satellite 10 x10 x 30 centimetres from Scotland to Baikonur. A powerful small camera on a satellite the size of a shoe-box can observe natural disasters for emergency relief, monitor deforestation, or observe rapid movement of small ships off the coast of Somalia. We are also developing an impressive track record with the bigger satellites too, with about a quarter of the world’s commercial telecom satellites made here in the UK by Astrium.

We can also skip a generation in launch technologies as we are not trying to protect an existing conventional rocket system. At the moment space launch technologies are one-off and not reusable. A space launch costs many tens of millions of pounds and the launch vehicle is expendable – it is like flying a jumbo jet to Los Angeles and destroying it on arrival. The future is reusable technologies, going beyond the now decommissioned space shuttle, to space planes launched from runways rather than launchpads, which can be used for putting satellites into orbit, for low gravity research and construction of labs and for space tourism.

British technology could be the first to break through to a truly reusable space plane, with the SABRE engine being developed by Reaction Engines at Culham in Oxfordshire. And in the shorter term, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be flying commercially within a couple of years. Although initially marketed for sub-orbital space tourism, their technology will also provide a launch service for small satellites. But the absence of any European aviation regulation for these hybrid vehicles means they can be launched across the rest of the world but not in the EU. This is especially frustrating as there are opportunities for the UK to host a space-port if we get the regulatory framework correct.

Britain is currently ahead of most of the rest of the world in how we run our space programme – we have a vigorous commercial sector and no big state-run space technology organisation at the centre. Instead of central contracts, we rely on cooperation to ensure that British science has the technological foundations for the future and that British companies continue to win contracts from across Europe and around the world. Instead of a big central pot of funding, the space sector is a case study in how a modern industrial strategy can be developed through real collaboration and strategic, targeted investment.

We already have strong and growing space businesses. Indeed we have a much more favourable balance of commercial and public sector space activity than any other advanced nation. London is proving to be a major draw for growing space businesses. Already the Silicon Roundabout is anchored by Inmarsat, a FTSE 250 company built on space technology, and surrounded by growing space companies like Avanti and Paradigm. One reason is that our financial services industry has world leading skills in financing and insuring space business – it is important that misconceived international regulation does not jeopardise that.

There is an assumption that broadband has to be delivered by fibre optic cable (another British invention), but one way in which we are using space technology to solve 21st century problems is in the delivery of telecommunications. Satellites too have a role in delivering broadband, particularly in hard to reach places where our assumptions about fibre-optic networks do not apply. There need be no not-spots anywhere in Britain as we are fortunate to have already satellites targeted on delivering broadband services to the UK. They may not get to full super fast broadband speeds but it is possible to carry out all the basic web based functions from email to Skype. An independent report to the Space Leadership Council confirmed that reports of the technical problems in such a service are exaggerated.

This is a business where Britain is a world leader. There are crucial emerging economies which will struggle to build up the fibre optic infrastructure necessary for a ‘wired’future. Instead they could be using satellite services, and British businesses, like Avanti, can play a major role in providing these services. We are already the world leader in providing telecommunications services across the oceans with Inmarsat. It would be a logical extension of this crucial role for web-based services to reach the International Space Station, which Britain has just joined as a member in our own right. An international consortium is looking at putting the space station on the web. It would be fitting if Tim Peake, the British astronaut in the European Space Agency were to use a flight to the ISS to connect it to the Web via Britishbuilt technologies. 

Manned space flight captures the imagination and is one of the most powerful ways of getting young people studying science. In the US they still talk of the Apollo effect when young people surged into the sciences. But a lot of space exploration can and will be done by robots and autonomous vehicle. That brings us to our third technology.