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Spending boost as UK seeks a bigger role in space activities

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Dec 14, 2014, 3:11 UTC

Sen—The United Kingdom is looking to increase its role in space by boosting its contribution to European space activities and playing a lead in missions to Mars

The Government’s finance chief, Chancellor George Osborne, made a big point of highlighting the new funding in his autumn statement to MPs last week. Now the details have been released by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and Science Minister Greg Clark.

The extra investment is said to total more than £200 million ($315 million). It includes £47.7 million ($75 million) to lead the ExoMars projects for the European Space Agency (ESA), including development of the Mars rover in the UK.

Due to fly in 2018, the rover being built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, Herts, will carry experiments to try to determine whether there has ever been life on Mars. It will be the first non-American robotic rover on the Red Planet.

Another £49.2 million ($77 million) will be spent giving British researchers more access to the $100 billion International Space Station programme. The aim is to allow them to make advances in areas such as materials, science, and medical and biological sciences.

Some of the money for the ISS will also be invested in demonstrating a UK-built communications terminal for the European module of the ISS, as well as possible lunar research and the deployment of small cubesats from the orbiting outpost.

There will also be increased investment in telecommunications, including £56.9 million ($89.5 million) to develop a low-cost, flexible satellite worth more than £1 billion ($1.6 billion) to UK industry. This “Quantum class” satellite, which already has an order from European satcom operator Eutelsat, will be developed by Airbus Defence and Space and carried on a new small geostationary satellite platform built by Surrey Satellite Technology.

Also, £28.4 million ($44.5 million) has been allocated for what is called the Integrated Application Promotion programme (IAP), a bid to boost the creation and growth of businesses that use space-acquired data, such as agriculture, medical services, fisheries and rail. This is an investment that the UKSA say could generate returns of 365 million euros ($455 million).

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A prototype of a ExoMars rover, nicknamed Bruno, being tested in the Mars yard at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage. Another prototype is called Bridget. Image credit: Airbus Defence and Space

The UKSA is spending £29.4 million ($46 million) on high-throughput satellite services and applications to develop and manufacture satellite broadband services. And £4.9 million ($7.7 million) will go towards the new European Data Relay System which we wrote about earlier this week, to transmit data between satellites in orbit.

Finally, £11 million ($17.3 million) will go to help a leading communications satellite operator, Inmarsat, to develop a platform for mobile satellite services, called Inmarsat Communications Evolution (ICE).

David Parker, Chief Executive of the UKSA, told Sen: “In the UK, we’re doing every type of space from exploring the farthest Universe to everyday life like the weather forecast, Sky TV and supporting our forces around the world with satcom. 

“So it is part of everyday life, its vital for business, it is vital for understanding planets, and it is vital for understanding where we came from in the Universe and understanding how life got going on this planet.”

He added: “Space is inspiration and the economy, all rolled up together. It is a very big contributor to the economy, worth £11.3 billion to the UK, and providing 34,000 jobs in the UK space sector. Most of those are in delivering everyday services from space that we all use, from navigating in your taxi to seeing sporting events from around the world, such as the Grand Prix.

“Then there’s its role in dealing with natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. Space data is vital for helping with all those, and solving those problems. It is a very important part of what we’re doing in the modern world, and the space industry is seeing a 7 per cent growth a year, which is a rate comparable to China.”