Inside the UK’s Space Startup Central

Long before the United Kingdom announced its intention to become Europe’s hub for spaceflight and space technologies, the government was working to expand its share of the commercial space market by supporting homegrown space startups and enticing existing firms to join business clusters forming near Harwell, Oxfordshire and Glasgow.

Only a handful of space companies were based in Oxfordshire in 2013 when the European Space Agency opened its first U.K. research facility, the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications, in Harwell. The same year, Innovate UK, an economic development agency, established the Space Applications Catapult, a government- backed company that brings together people and organizations to encourage economic growth, on the same campus. Now, approximately 60 space companies reside in the Harwell-Oxford area, dubbed the U.K. Space Gateway.

The European centre for Space Applications and telecommunications is based at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, also known as the UK Space Gateway. Credit: UK Science and Technology Facilities Council

The European centre for Space Applications and telecommunications is based at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, also known as the UK Space Gateway. Credit: UK Science and Technology Facilities Council

“It’s ramped up very quickly,” said Sam Adlen, Satellite Applications Catapult business innovation head. “There has been quite a bit of buzz around the cluster, which has led to people wanting to be here.”

Although many of the companies near Harwell are startups with only one or two employees, others, like Gyana, a firm based in Oxford that uses artificial intelligence to gather information from satellite data, and Oxford Space Systems, which develops deployable space structures, have about a dozen employees. The largest company in the cluster is RAL Space, part of the United Kingdom Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. It has 200 on its staff.

RAL Space is an important anchor for the cluster because it offers many of the facilities startups need to test their new space systems, including vibration and thermal vacuum chambers as well as clean rooms for flight hardware assembly, Adlen said.

“The U.K. has done a pretty good job of taking a look at what facilities are needed and trying to fill gaps where there are gaps,” Adlen said.

The Satellite Applications Catapult offers companies access to meeting space, laboratories, secure facilities, an antenna farm and a flight operations center, where clients can manage spacecraft in addition to downloading, processing, archiving and distributing the data.

Startups benefit because they can gain access to local facilities by paying a daily rate. “We do not have to invest in bricks and mortar,” said Mike Lawton, Oxford Space Systems founder and chief executive.

“A nice little group of facilities is starting to be created in Harwell,” Adlen said. “That should be a draw to more companies. That would lead to more facilities. It is clustering in action.”

RAL test chamber. Credit: RAL Space

RAL test chamber. Credit: RAL Space

A similar space cluster is forming in Scotland.

When Craig Clark established Clyde Space Ltd. to manufacture small spacecraft and satellite systems in Glasgow in 2005, Scotland had a proud shipbuilding tradition but little space-related work. That has changed dramatically in recent years as companies like Spire, a startup that gathers weather and maritime data from small satellites, and Alba Orbital Ltd., which sells tiny satellites through its PocketQube Shop, set up shop there. PocketQubes are cube-shaped spacecraft that measure 5 centimeters on a side and weigh approximately 180 grams.

Microsatellite work has helped Glasgow become an important hub of space activity, said Colin McInnes, a University of Glasgow engineering science professor. Glasgow’s space expertise extends beyond miniature spacecraft, added Patrick Harkness, a University of Glasgow space systems engineering professor, noting that the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research built the sophisticated optical bench for ESA’s LISA Pathfinder, a probe launched Dec. 3 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center on a Vega rocket to test gravitational wave detection technologies.

Glasgow also is home to the Satellite Applications Catapult Mission Laboratory at the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, where space system developers can demonstrate new satellite technologies. The city is a center for cutting-edge research on solar sails, space robotics, hypersonic technologies, space debris removal and space-based quantum communications, said McInnes, author of the book “Solar Sailing: Technology, Dynamics and Mission Applications.”

“Both the University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde provide extremely high-quality engineering graduates and offer a broad range of laboratory facilities from hypersonic wind tunnels to radio frequency testing and nano-fabrication,” McInnes said.

Finding quality engineering graduates and more seasoned space professionals remains a challenge for startups and established companies alike. That is one of the problems clusters are designed to address by attracting talent to a single geographic location with multiple employment opportunities, Adlen said.

Joyeeta Das, Gyana founder and chief executive, and Oxford Space Systems’ Lawton said they receive job inquiries from people all over the world eager to join their fledgling space enterprises. Gyana’s staff includes 12 people from 11 countries, Das said. Oxford Space Systems’ latest recruit is from Japan, Lawton added.

Oxford Space Systems' Astrotube boom on a 3U cubesat. Credit: Oxford Space Systems' Artist Concept

Oxford Space Systems’ Astrotube boom on a 3U cubesat. Credit: Oxford Space Systems’ Artist Concept

That ability to attract national and international talent will be critical if the United Kingdom is to succeed in its goal of expanding its share of the global space market from its current level of 6.5 percent to 10 percent by 2030, which would mean 100,000 new space industry jobs and additional space-related revenues of 40 billion British pounds, according to the government’s National Space Plan.

Efforts already are underway in the U.K. to expand its space labor force. Much of that work stems from the U.K.’s 2010 Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, a 20-year plan published in 2010 to bolster the industry. As part of that plan, the U.K. Space Agency established in 2014 an office to help small and medium-size businesses find qualified space-sector employees. In 2014, the U.K. also began providing financial support for Ph.D. students moving into the space sector and the Satellite Applications Catapult set up an internship program for undergraduate students called Space Placements in Industry.

The National Space Plan reiterates the government’s commitment to expanding the supply of skilled workers. It also promises more space clusters.

“The clustering of resources and industries in specific locations can provide a conducive context for success — this is already evident through the coordinated investment in the U.K. Space Gateway at Harwell,” according to the plan released Dec. 14. “The Government will, as part of our wider national infrastructure strategy, develop further clusters around existing and new space assets in industry and academia, replicating the ‘Harwell effect.’”