Space: the fiscal frontier?

The UK space sector's turnover now stands at £7.5bn a year - and it's rising, Jim...

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 08 Nov 2010

UK space companies seem to be above the concerns of their Earth-bound cousins, growing by an average of 10% a year from 2007, despite the gravity of the recession.

And employment in the sector has been going up around 15% a year too. Compared to everywhere else at the minute, that’s like being strapped to the side of a shuttle and given 400,000 pounds of thrust.

Of course, it’s not all spacewalks and rounds of moon-golf. The best performing areas are more down-to-earth services like satellite broadcasting, telecoms and sat-navs (known collectively as downstream activities). But even the weaker upstream work, like satellite manufacturing, was healthy – recording annual growth of 3% from 2006/7 to 2008/9.

This news comes from a report by Oxford Economics, based on its survey of 260 leading companies, including BSkyB, Inmarsat, EADS Astrium and Qinetiq. And the good news is set to continue, it says.

The sector recently released its Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, looking at emerging market trends in the next 20 years, from space tourism to the delivery of broadband internet by satellite. Its conclusions: companies need to increase their R&D spend, and the government must up its investment.

Now if the Coalition announced it was blasting a few extra million into space having just sent half the country orbiting round the job centre, it’d be about as welcome as a UFO landing on your patio. But such investments may actually be sensible: the S-IGS said the UK space sector could create up to 100,000 new UK jobs in space-related activity and increase its revenues to £40bn a year.

So where would this money go? The space sector is currently championing the potential of a privately financed, national Earth-observation (EO) service, generating imagery for the MoD and other government departments, while selling other data on the open market.

The project would be handled by the private sector, but would need a long-term commitment from the government to get off the ground. The government has also invested in the Hylas-1 spacecraft, which will become Europe's first broadband dedicated satellite when it launches later this month.

Things seem similar across the pond. Barack Obama has come under pressure from American earthlings to reduce its space spend. Seems like they too were wondering why go on expensive voyages round the cosmos when everything is so up in the air on the ground.

Yet a couple of months back Stephen Hawking was warning that the only way to overcome population rise and finite resources was to look beyond our own planet. So it may be a case of having no choice. Hawking also said that any aliens we come into contact with may not be as friendly as we’d like to think. As the Lib Dem element of the Coalition is discovering now…

Should the government invest more in the space sector? Let us know what you think, below...

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