Space Park Leicester: Leading the UK into the new space age
The new space age is well and truly underway. In the same week that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sent its first passenger Beth Moses into space on board the VSS Unity, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) announced that it will provide £350,000 worth of funding to allow three companies to develop commercial range control services across multiple space port sites across the country. This announcement marks an important step towards establishing vertical and horizontal space ports in the UK, helping to bring the UK into the new space age.
Although these achievements may seem like considerable shifts in the UK’s space sector, the UK, and especially the city of Leicester, has long played a leading role in the global space scene. Since the first Leicester-built instrument was launched into space aboard a Skylark rocket from Woomera in 1961, the University of Leicester’s Physics department has been contributing to space missions for over 50 years. Some of the most iconic include: Copernicus (1972), EXOSAT (1983), GINGA (1987), ROSAT (1990), XMM-Newton (1999) and SWIFT (2004). The most recent projects include last year’s BepiColombo Mercury mission, the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover, which is due to launch next year, and 2021’s James Webb Space Telescope mission. With this heritage it is little wonder that Leicester is now developing its very own Space Park to help transform the international telecommunications, resource management, environmental and disaster relief sectors.
Space Park Leicester is a multi-purpose facility set to develop manufacturing and productions techniques that will lower satellite production costs. The park is due to be designated an East Midlands manufacturing zone, and will provide 2500 jobs in Leicester alone. The park will have several functions. The first of these is to provide high quality downstream applications that promote the use of space-enabled data, which has high potential value for commercial use. In addition to this, the park will seek to help local SMEs grow through its SPRINT programme. The University of Leicester is the lead institution for the programme and home to the East Midlands Centre for Excellence in Satellite Applications. The SPRINT partnership is made up of a range of academic institutions supported by Catapult, and is designed to help develop new products and market programmes fit for the new space age.
The park has the potential to make the UK’s data-enabled satellite applications into a lucrative market. Satellite data is critical to delivering the ambitions of the UK. Space-enabled data is considered the ‘new cyber’ due to the growing number of businesses, development projects such as UKSA’s IPP programme and commercial operations in the UK that are dependent on it.
Scotland is already playing a leading role in redefining the capabilities of space through a unique ecosystem, which is using this increased uptake of data-driven innovation to boost economic capability. The diffusion of satellite-enabled applications across the global market, made possible by the rapid adoption of connected services (e.g. smart phones, tablets, navigation systems) has led to economic growth and had a significant impact on the development and positioning of products and services.
The R&D case
There has been much speculation over the UK’s R&D capacity post Brexit. The UK’s involvement in the development of Europe’s GNSS system, Galileo, has forced policy makers to explore the development of viable alternative R&D methods. Industry experts have raised concerns over the Horizon 2020 programme, on which the UK relies heavily in order to fund scientific research, innovation and industrial leadership on societal challenges. So far, UK has secured only €5bn of that funding to date (14.3%), which is why the potential restricted access to such funding post Brexit presents a challenge to the UK’s science and innovation sector.
Projects such as Space Park Leicester will be crucial to defining the UK’s post Brexit space industry. Professor Martin Barstow, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategic Science Projects at the University of Leicester, argues that Brexit has forced us to question ‘our reliance on towards EU money’, and has shown us that other funding bases do exist. For example, the Newton Fund, which is part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance programme, could be utilised to allow the UK’s space sector to play a greater role in delivering the Department for International Development’s (DFID) aid objectives.
Leicester Institute for Space and Earth Observation (LISEO) has played a leading role in providing research into one of UKSA’s International Partnership Programme projects: Forest 2020. This programme directly contributes to the UK Government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment delivered by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The Forest 2020 programme is designed to deliver UN Sustainable Development Goal 15, as part of UKSA’s objective to deliver UNSDGs through its programme and will help the UK forge important international partnerships through multilateral projects.
Leicester’s global links: International Trade
The UK’s first National Space Policy was published in 2015. In this paper, the government committed to growing the UK’s commercial space sector with an ambition of securing 10% of the global space market by 2030, supporting the creation of 1000,000 new jobs and generating £40bn for the economy from a base of £11.8bn in 2014. Whilst these targets may seem ambitious given the current political climate, it is important to acknowledge that the UK’s space sector has grown at an average of 8.1% since 2000, almost five times the rate of the wider economy over the same period. Space Park Leicester can contribute to this growth by offering an array of international trade opportunities for the East Midlands regional economy.
Last year, DIT endorsed the park as a ‘High Potential Growth Opportunity’. However, according to its CEO, Grant Bourhill, ‘DIT have not been clear about its objectives for involvement in Space Park, which means it is too early to say whether Space Park Leicester will lead to a change in policy outcomes and an increase in funding into the park by DIT.’ The lack of consistent financial and policy support for projects like Space Park show that endorsements for high potential trade projects are simply not enough, and that government must do more to invest in regions outside of London to boost the UK’s export capacity.
Professor Barstow emphasised that ‘Industry is excited about the Leicester Space Park, because of the foundation that the park offers for academics and industry to connect to help increase the UK space sector’s capability.’ However, in order for this to happen, more must be done to facilitate connections between academics, industry and government if the UK to boost its global trade links post Brexit.
The sky’s the limit
Through examining the various international trade, new data and R&D capabilities that Space Park Leicester has the potential to offer, it is clear that more engagement with the East Midlands is important for the UK as a whole to succeed in the new space age. The lack of coherence around the government’s stance on funding for projects such as Space Park Leicester presents a challenge for the UK’s regions. Greater collaboration between government departments on this issue needs to be resolved if the UK is to succeed at an international level post Brexit.
In order for the UK’s space sector to succeed government must be willing to capitalise on the wealth of academic expertise that can be found in the UK’s universities. The Space Park’s SPRINT programme highlights how the economic and soft power capabilities of the UK are inextricably linked. DIT, DFID, the FCO and UKSA should try and work together on designing more projects such as the IPP to utilise the UK’s industrial and academic clout post Brexit.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG.