New study reveals multi-billion pound economic potential of UK space industry

Published: 22/03/2021

Scotland’s growing space industry has the potential to help put the UK at the forefront of the worldwide launch market for small commercial satellites over the next few years, a new study has found.

Computers inside the proposed space hub at Sutherland

A detailed market analysis of the UK space launch opportunity was commissioned by development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and carried out by RSM UK and SpaceTec Partners, an independent management consulting firm specialising in the international space sector.

Published online today [Monday 22 March], the study concludes that the UK is well-positioned to access a growing global market that will send almost 4,000 small satellites (3,814) into low Earth orbit through 970 launches between 2020 and 2031.

This scale of activity has the potential to generate cumulative spaceport services revenues of around $490m (c£350m) and $5.8 billion (c£4.2 billion) in launch revenues.

As satellites become smaller and cheaper to produce, the numbers being launched by commercial operators have increased dramatically.

In 2009, fewer than 1,000 satellites (986) were in orbit around the Earth. Last year, that figure had almost trebled to just under 3,000 (2,787), around 61% of which were small satellites, weighing less than 500 kg.

Much of the demand has been driven by the vast number of products and applications now in daily use – from smartphones and health monitors to GPS devices – that rely on satellite data and technology.

Scotland already produces more small satellites than any other country in Europe and is home to two companies that design and manufacture launch vehicles – Orbex in Forres and Skyrora in Edinburgh.

Several locations in the north of the country are ideally suited as sites for vertical launch, benefiting from good access to both polar and sun-synchronous orbits as well as a skilled workforce and flexible supply chain. Ambitious developments are planned at Melness in Sutherland, Unst in Shetland (which also intends to launch larger vehicles and satellites) and North Uist in the Western Isles.

At the same time, horizontal launches are proposed for Prestwick in Ayrshire and Machrihanish in Argyll, as well as two sites further south – Snowdonia Spaceport and Spaceport Cornwall.

Gaining access to space capability will position the UK among the world’s leading ‘spacefaring’ countries, the report states. Although 95 nations around the world operate satellites, only six have launch capacity at present.

International competition is becoming fierce, with several small countries currently planning their own launch sites. Nonetheless, the researchers conclude that the UK can expect to capture a share of the growing global and European small satellite launch market in the coming years.

Martin Johnson, Highlands and Islands Enterprise director of strategy and regional economy, said the research represents the most extensive study of the market opportunity for the UK space sector that has been carried out to date.

“These findings show the UK space sector is set for considerable growth this decade, and that presents a tremendous economic opportunity for Scotland,” said Mr Johnson.

“This growth is largely driven by our increasing use of devices such as smart phones and watches and streaming services, as well as the need for accurate Earth observation data for a range of uses including monitoring climate change.

“The Highlands and Islands is ideally placed to host launch services at a number of locations that offer good access to orbit and other advantages.

“Launch capacity in turn supports opportunities for manufacturers of satellites and launch vehicles, as well as the wider supply chain.

“Importantly, this research demonstrates that the market scale is capable of supporting a number of complementary UK launch sites, that together will strengthen the country’s competitive position on the international stage.”

Scottish Government Innovation Minister Ivan McKee said:

“This research demonstrates to us that Scotland has a great opportunity to realise its potential to become Europe’s leading commercial space nation and capture a slice of the £4bn global market by 2030.

“Scotland already has a world class reputation in both smallsat manufacture and satellite data processing and applications. We have two launch vehicle manufacturers based in Scotland that are making rapid progress developing a new class of launch vehicles that are smaller, cleaner and more environmentally efficient than the large-scale rockets we have seen in the past.

“With a number of spaceports in development that all offer something slightly different to the market, we are well on the way to closing that last gap in our capability and delivering a full end-to-end solution that enables to us to build, launch and offer analysis.

“The findings of this study show us a way forward in the post-COVID world. We must now put practical steps in place alongside industry to harness this opportunity through the provision of affordable, reliable access to space and ensure that Scotland is recognised as a leading destination for attracting space-based businesses from all across the world.”

John Innes, Chair of the UK Spaceport Alliance, said:

“The UK Spaceport Alliance welcomes this assessment as an important and very valuable contribution to producing a realistic picture of the space market.

“The Alliance is pleased that the conclusions of the report support the views of the spaceport sector that there is a strong, immediate and growing market for launch which Scotland and the UK is well placed to exploit with its strong and diverse range of spaceport facilities.

“The Alliance is also pleased to see and supports the emphasis in the report on the highly competitive international nature of this market. This provides additional evidence of the need for the UK to work collaboratively and for government to ensure the appropriate economic and regulatory environment to facilitate the successful growth of the UK spaceports and the Prime Minister’s commitment to supporting commercial UK launches starting in 2022.”

Ian Annett, deputy CEO for programme delivery, UK Space Agency, said:

“Our aim is to grow the UK’s global market share of the space sector to 10% by 2030 and UK Government is working closely with colleagues in Scottish Government, innovation and enterprise agencies to maximise the opportunities offered by launch from Scotland and ensure the benefits are shared right across the UK.  

“Offering launch capability from Scotland will enhance the attractiveness of the UK as an inward investment opportunity and accelerate growth within an already successful emerging sector.

“We look forward to publishing a summary of our own analysis into the potential demand for small satellite launch from the UK in the coming months.”

The researchers’ findings are available on the Highlands and Islands Enterprise website at www.hie.co.uk/space

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