Steve Nichols reports from the 12th annual Appleton Space Conference held at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Harwell.

The UK continues to make good progress against its ambition to gain 10% of the global space market by 2030, but it needs to tweak its plans for the best results.

That was the main message from Doctor Chris Mutlow, director, STFC RAL Space, who said that the country was delivering against the targets set by the UK Government’s space innovation and growth strategy (IGS), but this now needed revisiting to ensure the best results.

Mutlow said: “The UK space industry fared well in the government’s Autumn Statement with a large investment, but we need to develop a new growth strategy, based on what we have achieved so far.”

The Peake effect

Mutlow added that the country also needed to capitalise on, and continue, the “Tim Peake effect”, which saw massive public interest when the UK European Space Agency astronaut visited the International Space Station in late 2015/2016.

It is estimated that around one million youngsters were engaged in Peake’s mission in terms of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outreach projects that took place. These included live TV and amateur radio link-ups with schools, and in-orbit science experiments performed in the weightlessness of space.

Peake gave a presentation at the conference, and continues to inspire young people to take a keen interest in space matters.

Mutlow said that it has been an exciting time for STFC RAL, with new buildings, its new joint analysis system meeting infrastructure needs (JASMIN) super-data-cluster, which can handle 17 petabytes of data, and contracts for various space missions.

Ross James, deputy CEO and director of commercial space at the UK Space Agency, said the UK space sector was now worth around £11 billion and employed more than 37,000 people.


“Space underpins everything we do in the UK, from agriculture, automotive, maritime, aerospace and energy,” he said. “But we must be more proactive in seizing opportunities and strive to gain the high ground when it comes to dominating the global space industry.”


He said that space was often seen as a “risky business” to invest in and more efforts had to be made to make it more attractive to commercial investors. But, he added, the launch of the Seraphim commercial space fund, which manages around £80 million, was making the industry more attractive to investors.

The day after the conference, the 22-nation European Space Agency’s member governments agreed to 10.3 billion Euros (£8.85bn) in new spending over the next three to seven years, including a commitment to the International Space Station to 2024 and the completion of the Euro-Russian ExoMars mission, to launch a rover vehicle to Mars in 2020.

Future space industry

The UK Space Agency will allocate more than €1.4 billion (£1.2bn) to the ESA programmes over the next five years.

James said the UK has a massive input into European and other space missions, including ExoMars, the Solar Orbiter spacecraft mission, the BepiColombo mission to Mercury, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Companies getting special mention included Guildford-based SSTL, with its AlSat Nano mission, developed in conjunction with the Open University. And Chelmsford-based e2v, which has imaging sensors on just about every major mission currently in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), New Horizons (Pluto), the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO), Sentinel-3A, and even the Rosetta/Philae comet mission.

The future UK space launcher industry was also given a shot in the arm in 2016 with the announcement of a £60 million government investment in Reaction Engines, which joined the 2015 £20m injection from BAE Systems.

Reaction Engines is the force behind the innovative synergistic air-breathing rocket engine (Sabre) that could power a winged launcher for future small satellites.

Redefining rockery

Mark Thomas, CEO of Reaction Engines, said Sabre will be able to operate from Mach zero to five plus and is a new class of engine that will redefine rocketry.


“Sabre’s pre-cooler will be able to take air at 1,000 degrees Celsius and cool it to -150 degrees in less than one hundredth of a second,” he said. “We are designing an engine that will enable us to have much cheaper access to orbit.”


He predicted that Sabre could take part in test flights before 2025.