UK Space Conference 2013

David Willetts highlights the strengths of the UK space industry and outlines investment in space technology eg the SABRE rocket engine.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon David Willetts

It is great to be here at the second UK Space Conference.

Britain has a long and proud tradition as a space-faring nation. Last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the first British satellite – Ariel. We also developed our own launch capability and are the only nation in space history to have had such a capability and then renounced it. For thirty years we then largely stayed clear of launchers and of manned space missions. This was seen by some as an abandonment of space. Actually it left the field clear for entrepreneurs and academics to pursue their ideas without a big public sector space technology presence dominating the scene. As a result we have a nimble and cost effective space business sector. We have flexible commercial enterprises like the privatised Inmarsat, Avanti the bold start-up, and Surrey Satellites, now part of EADS Astrium and probably our most successful single university spin out. This dynamic high performance space industry contributes over £9 billion to the economy every year and supports tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs.

Nowhere do you see how exciting the interaction of science and technology can be than in space. Often our scientists set challenges which drive extraordinary engineering achievements. We will have an excellent example of that next year with the first soft landing of a space vehicle on an asteroid. Comets are time-capsules holding the secrets of the earliest years after the Big Bang. Rosetta was launched in March 2004, and will be waking up from hibernation in January next year. This European Space Agency mission comprises a large orbiter - designed to operate for a decade at large distances from the sun - and a small lander called ‘philae’. Each of these carries a British instrument designed to complete the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted. As a layman the idea of a space vehicle making its rendezvous with an asteroid a kilometre or two long on the other side of the solar system with an orbiter a few kilometres above it is a quite extraordinary scientific feat. We can be proud that British scientists from the Open University and Imperial College London are involved.

Space is a true British success story already. But when we came to government it was clear to me that we could do more. This government has pushed our space activity to a new level. This really is a new era for British space.

The UK Space Agency is now in its third year, and is performing a hugely valuable strategic role in supporting one of the UK’s most important and visible high tech industries. It is a powerful convener for the industry. It also recognises its important responsibility to promote space research. They are publishing today their corporate plan for 2013/4. In just over six months David Parker has established himself as a highly effective chief executive respected across industry and academia. In fact his main problem is that the UKSA has so much to do and not always enough staff to do it so I invite academia and industry to take the opportunity and second more of your staff to it where they will be put to good use and broaden their experience.

We have had many big successes in the last three years.

  • last year, a team from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, just down the road in Edinburgh, delivered the Mid-Infrared Instrument for the James Web Space Telescope on time and on budget to NASA. MIRI was integrated into the James Webb last week, so we are one step closer to peering back 13 billion years into the origins of our universe
  • the government has committed crucial funding to the new earth observation satellite constellation, Nova SAR, which will help us monitor the earth’s carbon footprint
  • Ukube1, our first national cubesat that will enable us to test cutting edge technologies in space at relatively low cost, passed its flight review in June, and is due to launch later this year. It is fitting that we should be here in Scotland today, where there is so much space talent. And Scottish company Clyde Space, is an integral part of the UK Space Agency’s team for this important national facility. And congratulations to Craig Clark on his well–deserved recognition in the Queen’s birthday honours
  • we have created the space applications Catapult to help broaden understanding across business and government departments of what space-based services can do for them
  • we played a constructive role at the ESA ministerial last year with a significant boost in the UK commitment making us the third largest contributor
  • and I was thrilled to join Jean-Jacques Dordain in Harwell in May for the official opening of the European Space Agency’s centre for space applications and telecommunications
  • in May Tim Peake was assigned a six month mission on the International Space Station in 2015. He will be the first British astronaut in space for more than twenty years. I hope he will inspire a new generation of young people about STEM, and we are delighted that Tim, who once wore a woggle himself, is here today presenting the UK Scouts Astronautics badge

Two major launches will be milestones over the next few months - Alphasat, and GAIA.

Alphasat is the largest commercial communications satellite ever built. I hope to be there for its launch from Kourou in French Guiana next week. It will be the first satellite to use Alphabus, the new European high power telecommunications platform. It was developed to satisfy market demand for increased broadcasting services, including television, digital audio, broadband and mobile services. It gives European industry a unique position in the world market. Alphasat is the size of a London bus. Ukube is the size of a loaf of bread. That range shows the sheer range and skill of this great industry. A new digital age requires a new generation of satellite: bigger, better and transnational. UK investment in this project totals more than £70 million.

From services here on earth, we are also looking outward. The GAIA space observatory is set to launch at the end of October, again from Kourou. GAIA will be building a highly accurate 3D map of our galaxy by repeatedly observing a billion stars to determine their precise positions in space and their motions through it. Teams from Cambridge, Mullard Space Science Laboratory and other universities around the country are involved in the instruments and data processing, and British company e2v have built a billion-pixel charge-coupled device for the billions of stars.

Meanwhile, much is happening in the field of weather forecasting. As part of our major increase for science capital in the UK in the Spending Review last month, the Chancellor committed to further investment in the Met Office’s new supercomputer. This is critical for Britain’s forecasting capabilities - but also offers a leap forward for the space industry. Space-based observations are a critical component of our understanding of climate, and high-performance computers bring an opportunity to extract even greater value from space based data.

We are also seeing exciting progress with EUMETSAT’s Meteosat Third Generation, one of the biggest and most complex space projects ever undertaken in Europe, which will bring a step change in our weather forecasting capability.

Procurements for the ground segment are beginning to be placed. UK industry is engaging very actively and we are optimistic that we will achieve a strong UK presence in the delivery of this critically important area.

Following a strong subscription to Metop-SG at the ESA Ministerial, the EUMETSAT sister programme, EPS-SG, which will deliver the recurrent satellite units, ground segment and operations, will be approved in 2014.

And UK industry continues to reap the rewards of public sector investment. I am proud to announce that the European Space Agency has selected Astrium to supply the Microwave Sounder instruments for the MetOp Second Generation satellites, to be run by EUMETSAT. These instruments deliver atmospheric temperature and water vapour information for use in Numerical Weather Prediction forecasts, ensuring that short term weather forecasts can be made with greater accuracy. This is a great opportunity. And at a time when this Government is focusing hard on economic growth, contracts like this one, which will be worth up to 155 million Euros, are certainly to be celebrated. And there will certainly be celebrations in Portsmouth where this satellite will be built.

We had a major success on inward investment in the space industry when the Prime Minister took a trade delegation to Kazakhstan last month. One of the most high profile deals to be signed while he was there was a partnership between Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd, which now supplies 40 per cent of the world’s small satellites, and Kazakhstan for the collaborative design and development of the Kazak Science and Technology satellite system. The project will help Kazakhstan to build its resources, while also monitoring the environmental impact of that growth. It follows on from a similar successful capacity-building partnership between SSTL and Nigeria. Earlier in the year, the UK Space Agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kazak space agency Kazcosmos, and I very much hope that we will see further collaborative missions such as this one involving other British companies in the future.

We have a clear target of capturing ten per cent of a world space market likely to be worth £400 billion by 2030. It is deals such as these which make this a credible ambition. But to meet this target we must not only do those things that we have done for the last thirty years but harness new opportunities in new areas of space. We must be in the vanguard of technological innovation. It is not technology for technology’s sake, but technology for society and for the world.

If there is one technology above all which symbolises the revival of a strong British space sector it is launchers. We opted out of launchers in the early 1970s when we instead provided the core technologies for what has become the Arianne programme. Arianne is a reliable and effective conventional launch system. But the world is changing and we want to see Britain at the forefront of the next generation of launch and propulsion technologies. We can skip that generation of technologies and lead the move to the next stage.

That is why the Chancellor announced last month that the Government will invest in the development of the Synergetic Air-Breating Rocket Engine (SABRE) - an engine which could transform how we think about both space and aviation. £60 million has been committed to begin building the SABRE prototype, to make the technology available to the market and ultimately, to ensure the future of the UK economy.

This is a unique invention. The SABRE engine is the only one of its kind that is being developed in the world at the present time. What sets this engine apart is of course its game-changing heat exchange technology, which cools air from 1000 degrees to -150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. This is an extraordinary cooling rate in a piece of kit that weighs little more than a tonne. It means that what once seemed impossible – an affordable and re-usable service into orbit – is now within reach.

SABRE has the potential to create 20,000 high value engineering and manufacturing jobs. It will give the UK a leading position in a launcher market that is estimated conservatively to be worth £14 billion over the next thirty years. And it will provide economic benefits from spill-over technology markets.

The SABRE engine has the power to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way that the jet engine did in the 20th century. That makes Alan Bond a modern day Frank Whittle, the British inventor of the jet engine. Like Whittle, Alan knows that innovation does not happen overnight. Reaction Engines’ astonishing world-first is actually the result of thirty years of research, development and nail-biting anxiety.

Whittle first patented his design in 1930, despite a resounding absence of enthusiasm from the RAF. But his plane was not ready for testing for more than a decade, because the development tap was perpetually being turned on and off by the ministry and frightened bankers.

The most instructive chapter in Whittle’s story for us today was the arrival of Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, Chief of Staff of the US Army Corps, in the UK on a fact-finding mission in 1941. Arnold heard, by chance, that Whittle’s W1X engine was about to fly, and duly whisked it over to the US. Initially there was a strict agreement that it would be used for war purposes only. But after the war, in the interests of smoothing friendships, the UK Government released them of this undertaking for a neat $800,000 – and sealed America’s entry into the jet age.

This is where our new story will be different. While we let the turbojet engine technology slip through our fingers, this time the government is certainly not prepared to lose the engine technology that could revolutionise access to space. Our £60 million support means that Alan Bond’s team will now be able move to the next phase in the development here in the UK. I can announce today that we are committing £35 million in 2014-15, and £25 million in 2015 to 2016.

Over the next four years, the government’s money will be spent on four major elements of the SABRE engine development each of which is critical to realising the full production engine design at the end of the project:

  • The heart of the investment will be the SABRE engine technical design work
  • Improving the lightweight heat exchanger technology and manufacturing capability
  • A flight test of the innovative rocket nozzle design for SABRE
  • A significant part of the programme will be a ground demonstration of the engine

Reaction engines have done a great deal of planning over recent years to prepare for the next phase of development, and of course, with a project like this, timelines can change. But we expect to see the completion of prototype SABRE by 2017, and flight tests around 2020. Confidence breeds confidence. And our investment will help to prime the pump for further commercial investment to supply the remainder of the capital needed for full engine development. The commercial investment will look to capture several times this initial £60 million investment as part of a three to five year programme, and the company is already generating additional interest from around the world.

And, may I say, Jean-Jacques I look forward to next year’s ESA ministerial. I recognise there are tough decisions to be taken about the future funding of Arianne. But we in Britain can now speak from a position of optimism and we will be reminding our friends that space launch technologies are moving on. ESA needs to ensure it has a plan for employing the full range of launch technologies, not just supporting today’s conventions.

Our commitment to reaction engines is just part of a new era for propulsion in Britain.

I recently visited Qinetiq in Farnborough, and saw their contribution to our mission to Mercury, BepiColombo. The ion engines they have designed will take that spacecraft to the most difficult place to reach in our solar system. So British technology could one day take you from the surface of the Earth to the far reaches of our solar system.

Companies like Moog ISP have been building space propulsion engines in Britain for years. And now European Space Propulsion, a subsidiary of the largest space propulsion company in the world - Aerojet Rocketdyne - have recently set up in Northern Ireland as well. They make the thrusters that are used to position satellites. I am delighted to welcome them to the UK, and to a space sector that continues to grow.

Put these three particular technologies together and Britain is once again a leader in propulsion systems.

The government must do its best to keep pushing for new opportunities and supporting new technologies in both chemical and electric propulsion. Other businesses, research organisations and universities are working on innovative new developments as well, and this diversity can only strengthen Britain’s space community. We are considering the case for a national testing and research infrastructure for propulsion technology, to support this growing element of the UK space sector. Together, we can put Britain at the forefront of European space propulsion.

We have sent a clear signal to the world that Britain is serious about being a world leader in space. We want to be a world leader in growth and innovation in space. It is important that the private sector identifies the opportunities that will arise out of our commitment to European programmes and turns those opportunities into jobs and further growth.

And the development of Harwell – our burgeoning Space City – gives us a central hub for space innovation and expertise. The move by the European Space Agency to site their telecoms satellite headquarters at Harwell is certainly boosting excitement.

A great deal of the growth in the downstream market comes through international partnership, and Europe will be an extremely important conduit for opportunities for UK industry. UK Space Agency investment of £6.5 million in the first stages of the new Galileo Public Regulated Service pilot activity may be a comparatively small commitment but it opens the door to a €7 billion market in which UK reasonably expects to pick up €2 billion. These are the sorts of opportunities that arise from collaboration and participation in international programmes.

And we are already seeing international returns from this clear commitment to support and invest in space.

A few weeks ago I had a letter from Dr Miguel Bello Mora, CEO of Elecnor Deimos, a Spanish space company which works across the ESA’s programmes and has a turnover of €45 million. I was delighted to read that he will be setting up a British subsidiary at Harwell. And I welcome them enthusiastically to this country. I was especially proud when he outlined his reasons, saying simply: “Among all the other options that have been considered, the UK clearly offers the most promising opportunities for future growth in the space sector”.

That is exactly the message that we want to send out, and it is fantastic to know that it is being received so warmly. Deimos is not a lone example. We are currently engaged in commercially confidential discussions with other significant international players whom we hope to welcome to the UK in the near future.

After lunch today we will be discussing the Innovation and Growth Strategy, which was of course a shared commitment between government, industry and academia to propel us into a leading position in the global space race. As I have outlined today, the government is contributing considerable investment to make that target a reality. And we will now be looking to industry to deliver on that support.

This is the dawning of a new era for British space. We are leading the way on propulsion. We are showing leadership in crucial European space programmes. And we are securing international partnerships and critical inward investment. This matters to Britain. And it matters to the world.

In 3 short years we have rediscovered our pride in our great space history and recognised that we can have pride too in our future.

Published 16 July 2013