Forget Galileo – UK space sector should look to young stars instead

Joseph Flaig

The UK faces being locked out of key parts of the EU's Galileo satellite constellation despite significant investment (Credit: Shutterstock)
The UK faces being locked out of key parts of the EU's Galileo satellite constellation despite significant investment (Credit: Shutterstock)

“British security firms could be BANNED from helping EU with Galileo satellite project,” the Mail headline screamed.

“Brexit to ‘force work on Galileo sat-nav system out of UK’,” said the BBC. 

Then Airbus offered to build a new UK system – “BREXIT REVENGE,” said the Express. Scepticism followed – “Brexit Britain’s space ambitions are an expensive waste of time,” claimed Wired.

Built as an alternative to the US GPS system, the EU’s 30-satellite Galileo constellation is expected to be complete by 2020. The UK has invested €1.4bn in the programme, and Airbus employs 100 people on the project in Portsmouth. 

The system will provide free orientation to public users and more accurate information for military uses. But Brexit means the sensitive Airbus work will move to France and Germany, while the UK faces losing access to the high-precision data. 

Away from the headlines, the UK space industry painted a more upbeat picture.

“A small glitch along the way,” was the summary from Patrick Wood, UK managing director of Lockheed Martin Space. “I think industry will carry on and function.”

The government aims to snatch 10% of the global space market by 2030, and the country has “all the ingredients” necessary, said Wood at a Policy Exchange roundtable in Westminster. “We should stretch that goal and become the leader of space in Europe,” he said. “We have a healthy mix of science, commercial and military capability. We have a close working relationship in industry and academia, we have venture capitalists who are supporting new entrants, and great business opportunities.”

The UK space bill received royal assent in March, enabling the first commercial rocket launches from British soil. Focused on small satellites and scientific missions, the act also opens the way for development of the country’s first space port. “We can watch Falcon Heavy and marvel… but actually this stuff is potentially right on our doorstep,” said transport minister Jesse Norman, who took the bill through parliament. 

Also speaking at the Westminster event, he stressed the need for government and industry to collaborate but claimed there was “absolutely no reason” why the UK should not become the European hub for commercial space flight. 

However, a huge issue lurks on the horizon – the skills gap. “In order to grow an industry that reaches £40bn, you are going to need to have many more skilled people, at a time when other skills-intensive industries – robotics and so on – are also set to grow,” said Gabriel Elefteriu of Policy Exchange, who chaired the event.  

The key will be “transforming” the teaching of engineering, said Norman, who highlighted the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMiTE) university being developed in Hereford. Bosses hope the institution will address the skills gap by showcasing real-world engineering problem-solving, arts and humanities knowledge, and employable skills.

Other measures aimed at tackling the skills gap include outreach programmes such as the Year of Engineering, and the apprenticeship levy, which aims to raise billions to fund new and alternative routes into industry for school leavers.

Combined with a new space port and launch capabilities, facilities such as NMiTE could plot an alternative trajectory for the UK space sector – less concerned with huge international projects like Galileo, more focused on the thriving small-sat industry and start-up concepts from fresh talent. 

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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