Investment in the design and development of space science missions results in between £2.5 and £4 in returns for each £1 invested, a new UK report shows.
£523 million in funding from the UK Space Agency to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Science Programme (SSP) generated £1.4 billion of income for UK industry, with a further £1.1 billion received from partially attributed and forecast benefits, according to the study.
The investment, made between 2000-2018, created 306 jobs. UK industry regularly secures major ESA contracts to provide mission spacecraft platforms, support mission operations, and develop major subsystems.
One mission addressed by the report, Solar Orbiter, is due to launch in early February. Solar Orbiter will take the most detailed images possible of the Sun, providing crucial information about how its volatile activity affects its atmosphere. This knowledge will help improve predictions of space weather events, which can disrupt and damage satellites.
The UK is at the heart of this ESA mission, with Airbus at Stevenage winning the contract to design and build the spacecraft. This could become the template for an operational programme to monitor and warn of approaching space weather. Meanwhile, Imperial College London and UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory are leading international teams to design and build two instruments, while the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space and UCL are major contributors to two more instruments from which future operational requirements will be defined. The UK Space Agency provides separate funding to the academic community to support UK involvement in the building and data exploitation of the science instruments themselves.
“Having a major role in space science programmes is like playing in the Champions League,” said Chris Lee, chief scientist at the UK Space Agency. “Technology doesn’t get much harder than this, and the insights these missions offer and the skills they create permeate the entire UK space economy– supporting our leading role in areas such as telecommunications, Earth observation, and weather satellites.”
The report, commissioned by the UK Space Agency, also found the UK’s investments in space science have led to the development of new skills in the sector and improved facilities, such as clean rooms, computing, and mechanical equipment. The evaluation focused on a sub-set of seven SSP missions: Bepi-Colombo, Gaia, Herschel, James Webb Space Telescope, Lisa Pathfinder, Planck, and Solar Orbiter.
SSP is designed to undertake scientific research concerning the solar system, our Sun, and the Universe beyond. The programme also is charged with stimulating competitive industrial capability.
In November 2019 the UK Space Agency joined all ESA member states in supporting a 10% rise to the overall space science budget, taking the UK’s share to around £600 million pounds over a five-year period. This will increase the number and ambition of space science missions, including missions to use gravitational waves to study black holes and to intercept and study a pristine comet in our solar system.
In addition to these direct industrial contractual benefits, UK investment aims to facilitate technology transfer, industrial-academic knowledge transfer, and contribute to the UK skills base by attracting and developing young talented scientists and engineers through high profile missions.