Space industry plans win extra thrust

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A new National Space Security Policy will make the UK more resilient to disruption of space services – whether through sabotage or natural events such as a giant solar flare – the government says.

The policy will also enable the UK to make better use of satellites to promote national security interests, including military and surveillance operations. The priority here will be co-operation with the US “as our pre-eminent national security partner” as well as with France and other European countries.

The space security document is one of two reports released by the government on Wednesday to shape the future of Britain’s fast-growing space industry. The second gives wide-ranging support for a Space Growth Action Plan published by the industry in November.

The government has thrown its weight behind the strategy, endorsing the ambition to have achieve a UK space industry with revenues of £40bn a year – 10 per cent of the projected global market – by 2030.

“Space industries already support 95,000 full-time jobs and generate £9.1bn for the economy each year,” said David Willetts, science minister. “Our response to the Action Plan shows our commitment to secure its future growth and realise ambitions to develop a viable UK spaceport for commercial space flight.”

Until recently the UK has had no official interest in manned space flight but now ministers have set up a National Space Flight Co-ordination Group to “take forward space plane regulation, investments in space planes and the selection of a UK spaceport.”

The first issue to tackle in connection with manned space flight is how it should be regulated, bearing in mind that the safety levels expected for space tourism cannot match those in civil aviation. A regulatory review will report in July.

At the same time, the government says a technology feasibility study is examining how and where a spaceport could be located. RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland is a leading contender but there are other options further south and nearer major population centres.

“This is a firm commitment by government to run a serious exercise to identify a candidate for a UK spaceport,” said Mr Willetts.

The first user would be Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, which is due to begin commercial suborbital flights from New Mexico late this year.

The industry’s growth plan called for the UK spaceport to begin operations in 2018. “That timing would be tight but it may be possible if we are talking about adapting existing infrastructure,” Mr Willetts commented.

A central theme of the space security document is the need to improve “space situational awareness”. This means better tracking of natural and man-made threats, from asteroids and disruptive solar flares to incoming missiles and dangerous debris from defunct satellites.

The UK contributes to the US space surveillance network through RAF Fylingdales, the radar base and missile early warning station on the North York Moors, and in exchange Britain has “access to much better space situational awareness than we could achieve alone,” the report says. “But it does not meet all of our national needs.”

In future, the UK will co-operate more with France and other European countries, as well as with the US. “To meet this requirement, the UK will develop a coherent national approach to space situational awareness, as a basis for a stronger British contribution to international and commercial co-operation,” the government says.

An immediate response to the commitment to a growing space industry came from Thales Alenia, the French-Italian space communications company, which announced the establishment of a UK subsidiary at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

Martin Gee, who will head the new UK company, said: “Thales Alenia Space’s decision to come to the UK is a direct result of the government’s work to create a space-friendly research and technology environment, new access to funding and an effective business support network.”

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