Page last updated at 09:28 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 10:28 UK

Countdown to a UK space agency

By Sudeep Chand
Science reporter

Major Tim (BBC)
The UK has astronauts such as Tim Peake, but no agency

Time is ticking to a decision on a UK Space Agency, says a leading expert.

Sir Martin Sweeting, executive chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), is a senior figure in a review that is looking at the UK's role in space.

The Innovation and Growth Team Study on Space (IGT) will look at the potential impact on the UK economy and will report at the end of the year.

However, Sir Martin is already convinced there is a strong case and that more money may not be required.

The review is being led jointly by government and industry. It is one of three reviews currently looking at Britain's role in space over the next 20 years.

Sir Martin says that we often take the role of space in our everyday lives for granted. For example, mobile phones and the banking system are highly dependent on space applications.

"Space is now one of the legs on which our society stands, but only in the last decade," he says.

"So now is the time for a real review of its role.

"If you imagine turning off space for a day, it would bring our lives to a grinding halt."

Underinvestment

However, he is also dismayed at the level of investment associated with space.

"The civil space budget is in the order of £180m per year, and it creates about a £3bn contribution to the UK economy," he says.

"There was a preliminary study done last year called the Case for Space, by the UK industry.

Even some of the lesser known countries in space, such as Algeria and Nigeria, have formed their own space agencies

"What that showed was that space is the second highest contributor per capita in wealth of all industries except for oil and gas extraction; so, per worker, the space industry contributes the most to the economy."

The British National Space Centre currently coordinates space activities in the UK, rather than a space agency similar to those in some other countries.

Each of the individual government departments has its own space policy and its own budget.

Sir Martin says this is an opportunity to bring them together much more effectively.

"Times are hard and of course public spending is under review.

"It's not necessarily a question of asking for more money for space, but making better use of the money through being better co-ordinated."

Fading Moonlight

He feels that there is a danger that the UK might lose out to emerging economies.

Sir Martin Sweeting in SSTL cleanroom
Sir Martin's SSTL has pioneered small-scale satellite technology

"When you look at the latest space-faring nations such as China and India, they have very ambitious and exciting programmes," he says.

"It is not just science and manned space flight, but it is developing many applications in communications, telemedicine, looking at climate change, environment, pollution and so forth.

"This is stimulating their industry, creating a lot of internal wealth. Indeed, even some of the lesser known countries in space, such as Algeria and Nigeria, have formed their own space agencies.

"If the UK, which has an awful lot to offer and has a great capability in space, does not have the environment to encourage it, we will lose people overseas and business opportunities."

A UK mission to the Moon, called Moonlite, has been put on hold because of the financial crisis.

Sir Martin said: "The research council decided that Moonlight was a great idea. A number of countries have shown interest in it as well.

"It would provide scientific and commercial opportunities, such as mobile phone networks and GPS around the Moon, for when other countries have their mobile bases there.

"However, it's understandable that it's been delayed for a few months until we understand what the UK position in space is."

A public consultation is currently underway regarding the potential of a UK space agency.



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