The recent Falcon heavy launch by SpaceX caught the public imagination around the world; as many space missions do. The novelty of launching a car; complete with a star man certainly helped but perhaps distracted us from the implications of a private company demonstrating their ability to leave our planet.
This has triggered public debate, with even the director general of ESA calling for a re-think of our approach to launchers. The investment community has also backed the shift in the launcher markets. Historically it really has been regarded as rocket science and high risk and very high cost for VC money. However the recent global barometer for space tech ventures published by Seraphim Capital space fund, backed by the British Business Bank, firmly points to the launch market.
Classic innovation and disruption
Why is this? It is a classic innovation and disruption opportunity; a market has evolved over the past 50 years; fuelled by the international space race and driven by politics and truly ambitious goals like the Apollo missions and the moon shot. This has left us with a broad range of bespoke technologies funded by government and institutions in a small closed market.
For many years Russia led the way on low cost launchers; seeing an opportunity to service an emerging market for companies like SSTL. But private companies have now moved in and with them bring a very different risk appetite.
Celebrate failure with humour
SpaceX has famously celebrated its failures; publicly and humorously. Publicly funded administrations cannot take such risks or shrug off setbacks. The Falcon heavy launch; despite its impressive successes failed to put the electric sports car payload in the right orbit and the third return rocket ran out of fuel before reaching the floating landing pad. Would NASA or ESA still have had such public support with the same results?
Here in the UK we too have recognised this shift and have a few home grown contenders; like Reaction Engines and more recently Orbex but the UK Space Agency has also taken an ambitious and future market led approach with their launcher programme, to support the creation of UK space ports and operators within them; not just to build a facility and hope it will be used, or worse have to fund it’s use.
This difference of approach, supported by modern legislation in the UK space industry bill, is a bold step to re-enter the access to space agenda and back a high growth British sector.
What's happening in the UK?
But why now? and what have we been doing in the mean time? The UK was the third nation in the world to successfully build and launch our own spacecraft and launcher; one of the unused rockets has pride of place in the Science museum space gallery.
So what has happened? Well, the core driver behind many of these new launcher programmes and investment is a shift in the customer base. Until very recently the only commercial satellites were very large telecommunications satellites; an integral part of our society giving us truly global communications and live TV feeds from around the world ; like for the Olympics, and direct to our homes with services like Sky TV and freesat.
The world has changed
But the world has changed; broadband services and the challenges of laying fibre to rural locations have opened a market beyond bespoke data links. These are based on large constellations of smaller and cheaper satellites create a new demand for launchers; and related technologies.
The demand is not limited to communications either; more imagery of earth and other remotely sensed data; from weather or pollution to just monitoring change in our urban environments have fuelled demand for data from space; this quickly bleeds into the industrial strategy grand challenge of harnessing AI and the Data driven economy.
We call this cross over Satellite Applications and is why we created the Satellite Applications Catapult and focussed our Innovate UK programmes on applications. If investors recognise there is money to be made in selling rockets to these applications companies to launch their satellites then there is also confidence that these companies will thrive and a worthy of investment themselves – in fact Seraphim have to date only invested in the applications end of the space sector spectrum.
Industrial Strategy Challenge fund
We have also harnessed the Industrial Strategy Challenge fund; with investments in building the infrastructure to test and develop a new generation of space craft at the nationals satellite test facility and to develop robotics for satellite servicing and space debris removal. Who knows, maybe a British company will be the first to recover a car from space?
We have been working to make the UK the place to develop and demonstrate these new businesses and programmes like our missions and in orbit demonstration activities that are designed to harness the innovations needed for the commercial space sector and further de-risk the financial commitments needed to continue the growth of the British space sector.
So are we ready for a SpaceX? We are working on it, but what we really want is to be helping their customers.
Follow Tim Just on Twitter @InnovateTimJust
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