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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 18:33 GMT
UK space enters 'critical period'
Artist's impression of Galileo test satellite (Esa)
The UK excels in making satellites
The British space sector believes 2007 may be a critical year as it looks to protect its competitive position.

The industry turned over 4.8bn last year and employs one of the country's most highly skilled workforces.

And yet business leaders warn that extra government support is needed if UK success in satellite and other space technologies is to be maintained.

"I'm not sure they fully appreciate what we do," said John Auburn, the chair of trade body UKspace."

"The problem in the UK is that responsibility for space is split between so many different departments, we don't have a joined up policy for space. It's a structural problem that could be significantly improved."

The industry intends to lobby hard in the next few months to get Whitehall to release more funds into innovation programmes.

And the sector will raise its concerns in a public consultation which the government is running to develop a new civil space strategy.

This was launched on Monday on the website of the British National Space Centre.

Leading the debate is the new Science and Innovation Minister, Malcolm Wicks. He has spoken enthusiastically in recent days about the importance of space, both to science and education, and to the British economy.

"We're good at science and within that we're very good at space; we're excellent at producing small satellites, for example, and that's recognised by Nasa and the European Space Agency (Esa)," he told BBC News.

"What I want to do is get people excited about space. It's important for our economy.

"The global space market is valued at about 115bn and it is going to grow to 160bn by 2010. We've got a good share of this turnover."

Global competition

The UK space industry employs about 16,000 people, more than 60% of whom are graduates.

The sector is growing at 12.5% a year, four times UK economic growth and this performance has been consistent since the turn of the century.

It is also investing about 300m a year in R&D, 12% of the sector's manufacturing turnover.

Dr Michael Griffin and Malcolm Wicks
Malcolm Wicks (R) with Nasa chief Mike Griffin
But the industry is acutely aware of the global competition.

"We're seeing India and China investing heavily in space," said John Auburn, who works for the Vega Group, a space consulting and technology firm.

"That gets worrying; where you have very strong education and a very large number of graduates, as well as the political will - that starts to threaten our position."

The UK government spends a relatively small sum on its civil space programme - a little more than 200m a year. This is dwarfed, for example, by Germany and France which spend two and four times this amount respectively.

Even a relatively small increase in UK funds could reap huge dividends, said Auburn, if it was carefully directed at the right programmes.

The oft-cited example is Artes (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems), an Esa programme that puts money into basic research and product development.

It gets its UK contribution - about 20m - through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and helped fund, for example, the early work that led to the electronics "brain" put in the Inmarsat-4 series of telecommunications satellites that provide global broadband services.

Artes is credited with generating an average of 7:1 economic return for the UK in the last five years, and 40:1 in the case of Inmarsat-4.

The government will set multi-year departmental expenditure limits in the summer in its Comprehensive Spending Review. John Auburn said UKspace would be pressing ministers to make sure they understood the "case for space".

"It's a crucial year," he said.

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