‘NewSpace revolution’ embraced by UK’s astro-entrepreneurs
Image credit: Effective Space
American enterprises such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and OneWeb are the ventures often cited as typifying the ‘NewSpace generation’. However, It was clear from the UK Space Conference, held in Manchester 30 May to 1 June, that the ‘NewSpace revolution’ has now reached the United Kingdom.
The range of forward-looking themes from UK start-ups included in-orbit satellite servicing, air-launched rockets and asteroid mining - technologies usually pitched by US-based entrepreneurs.
An announcement by fledging imaging company Earth-i, on the eve of the conference, set the tone. The Guildford-based venture, which is developing a constellation of Earth imaging satellites for still and moving imagery, billed itself as “the first in the world to provide full-colour video footage”. Richard Blain, Earth-i CEO, declared the venture to be “at the forefront of the commercialisation of space and the rapid evolution of the NewSpace market”.
Its first satellite, built in Guildford by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, will be launched later this year to initiate a 15-month in-orbit test programme. Earth-i plans to launch its first batch of commercial satellites in early 2019. The constellation is designed to offer capabilities that are “new to the market”, including higher definition colour video at resolutions “better than 1m” to accurately record the movements of aircraft, ships and ground vehicles. According to Earth-i, the multiple images inherently captured by video can be “stacked to create virtual 3D models”.
Customers are expected to include energy companies, government entities and intelligence agencies with applications ranging from infrastructure monitoring and asset management to border monitoring and object analysis. The applications themselves are not new, but the fact that a commercial satellite constellation will be developed, built and managed in the UK is.
On its own, the Earth-i announcement and its stand at the conference exhibition would have sparked interest, but the sheer number of NewSpace ventures at the Manchester Central venue created a discernible vibe. It didn’t even seem to matter that the UK Space Agency, as a Government department, was in purdah because of the election campaign.
Daniel Campbell, VP for business development at Effective Space Solutions, described his company’s offer of satellite life-extension services, which include “station-keeping in geostationary orbit, relocation to alternative orbital positions and deorbiting at the end of a satellite’s life”. These services, portrayed by Campbell as “last-mile logistics in space”, would be provided by a 350kg spacecraft called ‘Space Drone’. Orbital ATK’s 2016 contract to extend the life of an Intelsat satellite by five years using its Mission Extension Vehicle indicates the potential, but it’s also clear that start-up companies with no track record have a challenge on their hands.
Another such company is the aptly-named Orbital Access and its air-launched rocket, deployed from beneath a converted commercial airliner in a similar fashion to Orbital ATK’s Pegasus. Orbital Access plans to launch its UK-built rocket from the planned Prestwick Spaceport in Scotland.
Likewise, the formative UK-based Asteroid Mining Corporation has its work cut out against the more established, but still unproven, US companies (Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources).
To those outside the arcane world of space technology, this may seem like science fiction, but the reality of weather satellites, space stations and Mars rovers argues otherwise - and the UK is in the mix. A conference speaker from the established world of satellite communications, CTO of Sky & Space Global Meidad Pariente, put it plainly. Having worked with the UK’s OFCOM to regulate spectrum for new satellites, he concludes that “outside the US, the UK is considered to be the best country to be in”. Thanks to the pending election, no government employees could comment, but as far as we know the UK’s aim to grab 10 per cent of the worldwide space market by 2030 stands.