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Space’s 'Main Money-Spinners:' Why the UK Is Going Big on Satellites

As the European Space Agency opens its first UK facility, it's looking for a "paradigm shift" in funding from private companies.

by Victoria Turk
Jul 10 2015, 5:35pm

Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

This year, astronaut Tim Peake will become the first Brit to go to the International Space Station with the European Space Agency. But while human spaceflight makes the headlines, the UK has a growing scene in another aspect of the space sector: satellites. Human exploration might have the glamour, but as commercial companies become increasingly interested in the space sector, telecommunications is where the money's at.

That's one reason telecoms is the focus of the first ESA facility in the UK, which was inaugurated in Oxford on Thursday. The European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) is located in Oxfordshire at the Harwell Campus.

ECSAT head Magali Vaissiere said the facility would "lead the ESA programs that address worldwide market needs," and noted that 75 percent of the activity at Harwell was in telecommunications and applications—"the space sector's main money spinners."

"ECSAT leads for the agency the development of new satellite systems in areas like ultra-high definition TV broadcasting or mobile services, as well as applications that require the transmission and management of big data, such as those for climate and environmental monitoring," Vaissiere explained.

L-R Science Minister Jo Johnson, ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ECSAT Head Magali Vaissiere, UKSA Head David Parker. Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

As private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic start to work on huge missions that once would have been unthinkable outside space agencies, the broader space sector is also seeing more collaboration from business. It's clear that ESA is particularly keen to foster these new relationships.

New ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, who hailed the facility's opening as a celebration of "the United Kingdom in ESA and ESA in the United Kingdom," said that it was "an excellent instrument for the shift in paradigm we are all anticipating, from purely publicly financed space projects to new models beyond PPP [public-private partnerships]," joking that in the past it had been more like "public pays permanently."

"The UK's attitude to space has always verged on the quixotic."

The building is named after Roy Gibson, the first director general of ESA, who at 90 years old took the stage to place the UK's commitment to the space sector in context.

"The UK's attitude to space has always verged on the quixotic," he said, "from years of enthusiastic investment followed by budget cuts and a sort of cultivated neglect."

Gibson agreed that telecoms was the most promising area of development. "The aim as I see it is not to produce an increased space budget as such, but more to enlighten and train more non-space entities in both the private and public sector to make use of our acquired expertise," he said.

First ESA Director General Roy Gibson. Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

Ahead of the inauguration of the new facility, several UK companies from the space sector presented their businesses, which included everything from tools that let farmers survey their crops using satellite imagery to software for water companies to track pollutants using remote sensing.

ESA no doubt does care about that increased space budget, and diversifying funding sources means it's not quite so reliant on fluctuating public funds (for his part, new UK Science Minister Jo Johnson insisted that science "goes through [the Conservative Party's] manifesto like the words through a stick of rock"). In 2013, the government included satellites in its "eight great technologies" to spur economic growth.

This kind of cooperation between space agencies and private companies was symbolised at the event by the signing of one such diverse agreement: a contract between ESA, French-based satellite company Eutelsat, and Airbus to build a new telecommunications satellite called Quantum.

Quantum, which will be built in the UK, is scheduled for launch in 2018, and is intended to push standards in terms of bandwidth and coverage and offer more flexibility as it can be reconfigured while in orbit.

A second building at the Harwell Campus was also inaugurated: RALSpace, a test facility run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, a UK government body. This will help with testing and research for agencies and, again, help forge those much-touted links with commercial activities.

"I'm not afraid, by the way, that space agencies will be unemployed in the future," ESA director Johann-Dietrich Woerner told me in an interview after the formal event. He drew on a remark made by his predecessor in the role: "We have more ideas than money. Much more ideas than money."

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