Northern Ireland: Watch this space

We've all heard about the Kennedy Space Centre and Space Center Houston, but it’s not often you associate somewhere like Northern Ireland with the cutting-edge space industry. That, along with the sector itself, is changing, says Robert Hill, Northern Ireland Space Office. Here’s why.

Hill told FINN: “The space sector is a very young industry. We have a fantastic heritage in Northern Ireland in the aerospace industry, and in astronomy, and in the academic sector.”

He said that this means Northern Ireland already has many of the key skills required to capitalise on the burgeoning space economy.

Space is changing

He added: “The reason why we're getting involved more and more now is because space is changing. Up to now it's been the national institutes, it's been the incumbent agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency, where you get the grant funding or you become part of that supply chain. But you just have to look at what's going on with SpaceX, Blue Origin with Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic. Things are changing. It's becoming quite commercial. Getting in now as we move from this incumbent institutional funding programmes to the new commercial activities is what we're trying to do in Northern Ireland.”

In 2016, Thales opened a new electric Space Propulsion Integration Centre manufacturing facility in Belfast in Northern Ireland, the first of its kind in the UK.

The UK government has set targets to try and capture 10% of the entire global space sector by 2030, set to be worth $400 billion globally.

“To do that, you cannot rely on traditional incumbent industries,” Hill said. “We need new stakeholders and new players."

"It's about getting the word out there that space isn't for somebody else. It's something you can do, and SMEs can get involved now, whereas before the entry point would have been too high.”

The time is now

Hill concluded: “Now, the rate that things are turning over, the technology readiness levels – you cannot wait 20 years to get the next widget into space. Everybody wants it now, just like the aerospace industry. It's about quality, it's about the skills, and in Northern Ireland we have them in buckets with the two universities and with the incumbent aerospace industry that's already there.”

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