To infinity and beyond? UK's space industry blast-off at risk

A report is urging the government to cut red tape to help the UK's small satellite makers.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 18 Nov 2015

The UK’s space industry is one of our best-kept secrets. Granted, Brits may not blast off cargo to the International Space Station, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But satellite companies like Inmarsat and Avanti are world class.

The industry was worth £11.3bn to the UK economy at the end of 2014. That’s according to the government, which wants to ramp up its 7% annual growth rate, with an aim of creating 100,000 new jobs and expanding the sector to £40bn by 2030.

It wants the UK to plant its flag on 10% of the global space market, up from 6.5% currently. But a report out today has warned that Britain’s intergalactic ambitions are at risk unless the government does more to support small satellite makers.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE) said that the Earth Observation (EO) sector is being strangled by ‘outdated and complex launch and operation licence regimes and expensive third-party liability insurance.’ EO satellites are used for everything from agriculture and town planning to conservation and disaster relief.

That’s not to say the sector doesn’t need regulating. ‘Inmarsat focuses on larger satellites and though the rise in the smaller satellite industry is well known, we have to deal with the problem of space junk before that becomes viable,’ a spokesperson told City AM.

‘Bigger is better’ jibes aside, companies can’t necessarily be relied upon to hoover up space junk by themselves. Although Lockheed Martin and others have made a good start, it will require the cooperation of governments around the world (given that space doesn’t exactly respect borders).

Aside from slashing red tape, IMechE wants government-backed company Satellite Applications Catapult to expand its placement programme for students and qualified engineers. It also wants it to increase money available to small businesses through the Satelitte Finance Network from £20m to £70m by 2020.

And it’s nudging the UK Space Agency to tell the public that satellites aren’t bad for privacy and data protection, while also posting more of the orbiting objects’ photos and data on social media (probably jealous of all the attention NASA’s incredible imagery gets).

But with George Osborne’s budget cuts ploughing on like a meteor, there won’t be much state money up for grabs right now. Best to make regulation more earthly, then watch the sector blast off.

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