What does the new ‘space age’ mean for rural communities?

On 4 October 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite (Sputnik 1) from a spaceport known today as Baikonur Cosmodrome. Since then launch vehicles have reached orbit from 27 spaceports around the world. With the rate of space launches expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, the Government here wants the UK to be a leading player in the global space industry, capturing 10% of the global market by 2030. But what does being at the forefront of a new commercial ‘space age’ mean for rural communities? Jessica Sellick investigates.

Data collected by satellites impacts upon our everyday lives – from navigation and weather reports to broadcast television, mobile communications and financial services. They are often described as an “invisible utility”. The decreasing cost of small satellites and launch services combined with the increased application and use of satellite data is creating more demand and requiring more capacity for satellite facilities. Further, with the development of re-usable spacecraft and horizontal launch capabilities, space travel and space tourism are now a reality. With the world becoming ever more dependent on satellites and the space industry, the Government’s ambition is for the UK to be a leading player in this global industry.  But what does this mean for rural communities? I offer four points.

  1. How big is the UK space industry?

The UK Space Agency (UKSA), an executive agency of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), is responsible for all strategic decisions on the UK civil space programme. Every 2 years the UKSA surveys organisations in the UK who supply and/or make use of space or satellite services – spanning commercial and non-commercial activities. The latest in a series of ‘size and health of the UK space industry’ studies was published in January 2019. Carried out by London Economics, the study covers the period 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 and is based upon an analysis of 948 space-related organisations (comprising 276 survey responses) and desk-based research of more than 600 organisations. The facts and figures presented reveal how:

  • Total UK space industry income grew to £14.8 billion in 2016-2017, a growth rate of 3.3% per annum. This is equivalent to 5.1% of the global space economy (2016-2017). Income is forecasted to grow 4.8% to £15.5 billion in 2017-2018.
  • The upstream grew strongly to £2.4 billion, though the downstream still dominates at £12.4 billion. Space Applications is the largest segment with 69% of income, of which 48% is Direct-to-Home (DTH) broadcasting. This is followed by Space Operations (15%), Space Manufacturing (13%) and Ancillary Services (3%).
  • Across all activities, Broadcasting dominates (51% of total income) followed by Communications (19%), Position, Navigation and Timing (12%), Defence (which has grown to 8%), and Earth Observation (3%).
  • The UK space industry now comprises 948 organisations, with 39 new entrants per year since 2012. Income growth from 2014-2015 to 2016-2017 (+£924 million) can be divided into: organic growth (+£794 million), new entrants (+£357 million), less attrition (-£226 million).
  • Growth is concentrated amongst very large enterprises (56% of overall growth) and larger SMEs (28%), with the latter growing particularly fast (31% per annum, compared to very large enterprises at 2% per annum).
  • The industry is commercially-focused, with 82% of income from sales to consumers and businesses. However, the public sector share of income has increased from 14% (2014-2015) to 18% (Space Agencies 4%, Government 14%), but remains marginally lower than the global average (20%).
  • Exports grew to £5.5 billion in 2016-2017, or 37.4% of total income. This is up from 36.4% in 2014-2015 and this export intensity is one third higher than the UK economy.
  • The industry directly contributed £5.7 billion of Gross Value-Added to UK economic output (0.29% of UK GDP, up from 0.27% in 2014-2015), and a total of £13.0 billion (including supply chain effects) in 2016-2017.
  • Employment in the UK space industry increased at a rate of 4.3% per annum to 41,900 jobs in 2016-2017. This is equivalent to 0.13% of the UK workforce (up from 0.12%).
  • The space industry workforce is exceptionally highly-skilled, with 3 in 4 employees holding at least a primary degree. This is higher than any sector covered by ONS Census data for England and Wales.
  • It is estimated that wider UK industrial activities representing over £300 billion of UK non-financial business economy GDP (15.3%) are supported by satellite services as follows (not mutually exclusive):
    GNSS (positioning, navigation and timing) satellite services support £264 billion of GDP (13.4%).
    Meteorological satellite services support £159 billion of GDP (8.1%).
    Telecommunication satellite services support £117 billion of GDP (5.9%).
    Earth Observation satellite services support £92 billion of GDP (4.7%).

As well as benefitting the space industry itself, these investments are seen to result in new knowledge, expertise and technologies that benefit wider economy. Termed ‘spillovers’, the lag between investments in space-related work and the benefits accruing to groups outside of these initial activities is 3-5 years. Spillovers are often focussed around technology transfers (e.g. products, processes and knowledge that can be copied and used in other settings). It is argued that without Government support, private companies would be likely to under-invest in activities with positive spillovers because they could not fully capture all the benefits of these activities. Conversely, in the absence of Government intervention, private companies are likely to over-invest in activities generating negative spillovers because they do not fully bear the costs. Both these cases of market failure are used to make the business case for Government intervention.

  1. Why do we need spaceports?

In July 2018 the Government published a brochure promoting the UK as an attractive destination to grow commercial markets for small satellite launch and sub-orbital flight services.

Small spacecraft (SmallSats) focus on spacecraft with a mass less than 180 kilograms – about the size of a large kitchen fridge. More than 1,300 smallsats were launched between 2012 and 2018 – with 2018 seeing six times as many launches compared to 2012. In 2018, 36% of smallsats were launched from the United States (US) – 80% of them manufactured by US companies. The US deployed the most Government smallsats between 2012 and 2018 (120) followed by China (44 smallsats) and Russia (43 smallsats).

A paper from Frost & Sullivan commissioned by the UKSA assessed the potential UK market share for dedicated launch services.  With the number of small satellites launched in 2017 increasing by 157% compared to 2016 combined with modelling showing likely supply (launch capacity) and demand (satellite operator constellation plans) to 2030 – the paper highlights an opportunity to invest in a spaceport in the UK.

As part of efforts to grow the UK’s spaceflight capabilities, Government has been funding a range of industry-led projects. This includes a £1.3 million investment in spaceport plans in England, Scotland and Wales. As part of the spaceflight programme, ‘Launch UK’, Government has contributed to a funding package to establish the UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland (Scotland). Called Space Hub Sutherland, the project is being led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and will see the development of a vertical launch site for a new generation of small rockets to launch micro communication and earth-observation satellites at The Moine, on the Melness Crofting Estate near Tongue. The launch site is expected to create around 40 highly skilled jobs. At a regional level, HIE estimates this figure will multiply to 400 jobs by 2023, with launch activities in Sutherland making the site the hub of a significant new space sector. The HIE project team has identified community benefits around tourism and local supply chain development and diversification. In October and November 2019 HIE organised a series of public events and community engagement activities. HIE then hopes to submit a formal application for planning consent to the Local Authority.

The UKSA and Cornwall Council are working with Virgin Orbit to develop facilities and operational capabilities that would enable small satellite launches from Cornwall in the early 2020s. The funding package consists of approximately £12 million from Cornwall Council, £7.85 million from the UKSA and £0.5 million from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (CIOS LEP). Spaceport Cornwall will use an existing airport, Cornwall Airport Newquay, and a modified Boeing 747 to offer launches. The spaceport also aims to act as a catalyst in attracting more high-value companies (from all sectors) into Cornwall. It is estimated that 150 direct and 282 indirect jobs will be created and £200 million of GVA generated over the next 5-years.  

Other Government investments include a new National Satellite Test Facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire and a new National Propulsion Facility in Buckinghamshire. Additional funding has been provided to support plans for small satellite launch and sub-orbital flight from aerodromes in the UK – including to Snowdonia Aerospace for the Snowdonia Spaceport Development Plan, which aims to create a centre for space R&D, training and satellite launch; and to Machrihanish Airbase Community Company (MACC) for a spaceport cluster plan in Argyle, Scotland.

The RAF will be launching a satellite as part of the Ministry of Defence’s £30 million space programme. Eight military personnel will also be joining Operation Olympic Defender to work alongside allies at the Combined Space Operations Centre in California.

Back in May 2018 the Government published its ‘Prosperity from Space’ strategy – setting out its vision for enhanced growth in the UK space sector over the next decade. The strategy focuses on four areas: (i) earth navigation services; (ii) connectivity services; (iii) in-space robotics; and (iv) low-cost access to space. The strategy aims to double the value of space to wider industrial activities from £250 billion to £500 billion, generate an extra £5 billion in exports, attract £3 billion of inward investment and interact with 1 million young people a year to increase interest in STEM careers [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. Developing space launch sites in the UK is one of the priorities to take forward the goals of the strategy.

In August 2018 Government suggested the UK could compete to launch 2,000 satellites by 2030 – having a competitive advantage to compete for a more substantial share of the market owing to the UK’s location, regulatory framework, private sector strategy and space ecosystem. Existing ‘rideshare’ small satellite launches [where small satellites piggyback on larger missions] are capable of meeting less than 35% of the total demand thus revealing a significant gap in commercial small satellite launch provision for which future UK spaceports could deliver.

The UK’s geography is also well suited for launch sites. Our northern latitude provides access to specific types of orbits around the earth – such as polar orbits, which are useful for earth observation. Also, the neighbouring Atlantic means launches can take place over the ocean and sparsely populated areas.

The Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) is a strategic, national, programme established in 2014, led and funded by the UKSA. It is delivered in collaboration with the Satellite Applications Catapult to drive the uptake and use of space products, data and services across Government departments. The programme aims to increase the public sector's use of space as an enabling technology to stimulate innovation and growth whilst at same time making Government more efficient and ‘smarter’.

On the one hand, the development of spaceports is viewed seen as providing a means for the UK to build a global reputation for manufacturing and launching small satellites (drawing on skilled engineers in the aerospace, electronics and software industries); of attracting companies from across the globe to invest in the UK; fully integrating the sector supply chain; boosting local economies in the communities surrounding sites and more widely (e.g. well-paid careers, inspiring the next generation); and increasing links to academic institutions and the research community. On the other hand, concerns have been raised about the lack of public consultation and the potential environmental impact of spaceports.

Alongside these developments Government is intending to establish a new National Space Council to inform UK space strategy and governance. Government is also focusing on international cooperation and has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Australia to exchange information, technology and personnel between the two countries.

  1. How are they being regulated?

In the UK, the Space Industry Act 2018 provides the regulatory framework for the expansion of commercial space activities and the development of spaceports; covering orbital and sub-orbital activities and horizontal and vertical launches. In most cases, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will regulate sub-orbital activities and the UKSA will regulate space activities. The exception is where the UKSA will regulate all spaceflight activities involving the use of rockets; regardless of whether they are involved in sub-orbital or space activities.

The licencing framework is not fully in place yet with details to be set by secondary legislation. The Government has issued guidance for prospective licences (for any launch, procurement of launch operation or return vehicles capable of operating above the stratosphere, some 50km) and anticipates publishing and consulting on detailed regulations in 2019. So far there has been one call for evidence on liability, insurance and charging.

Government has also been looking at health and safety legal requirements that may need to be implemented by a spaceport to minimise the risks to populations nearby from the storage and use of hazardous fuels.

The infrastructure spaceports need will require permission from the local planning authority. 

  1. How will rural communities benefit from ‘lift off’?

Launch UK is focusing its attention on Prestwick, Western Isle, Shetland, Sutherland, Campbeltown [Scotland]; Snowdonia [Wales]; and Newquay [England] – i.e., rural and remote areas.

The initial selection to qualify as a location suitable for a spaceport was based on a CAA assessment of a wide range of criteria from meteorological to environmental and economic factors. Criteria also included having an existing runway that could be extended to over 3,000 metres in length; the ability to accommodate dedicated segregated airspace to manage flights safely; and a reasonable distance from densely populated areas in order to minimise impact on the uninvolved general public.

For some rural residents the development of commercial spaceports is viewed as an opportunity to create highly technical jobs, upskill local people and generate income for the local economy. Other rural dwellers are less supportive – with spaceports seen to threaten the solitude and tranquility of where people live and have adverse environmental impacts (on landscapes and wildlife). Moreover, there have been discussions around whether spaceports are being imposed upon some rural communities and do not represent the kind of infrastructure they actually need. With Local Authorities responsible for the provision of an extensive range of services (e.g. planning, housing, highways, environment, economic development) how is/will Government support them to increase spending on these core services in spaceport areas?

If space matters – every time we go to work, turn on the television, make a phone call or do our banking; how can we ensure the benefits from our satellite and space programmes flow back to rural communities? For if the UK is to truly realise its potential of becoming a spacefaring nation it is dependent on rural places to do so.


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration. Her current work includes evaluating two veteran support projects (in Cornwall and North Yorkshire); supporting public sector bodies to measure social value; and evaluating a series of community safety and crime reduction projects. She is also a senior research fellow at The National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC). In her spare time Jessica sits on the board of a housing association.
She can be contacted by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk, Telephone 01522 521211, Website -  http://roseregeneration.co.uk / https://www.ncrhc.org/, Blog - http://ruralwords.co.uk, Twitter - @RoseRegen

SIGN UP TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.