On December 15, astronaut Major Tim Peake blasted off from Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, becoming the first British European Space Agency astronaut to visit the International Space Station. One month later he completed his first spacewalk, and he’ll spend a total of six months in space, orbiting the Earth sixteen times a day. It’s hoped his achievement will encourage a new generation of scientists and engineers to aspire to work in the UK’s burgeoning space industry.
This industry has already more than doubled in turnover over the past decade, reaching almost £12bn a year and employing 37,000 people. While Britain may not build the rockets and manned spacecraft which most people associate with space travel, British companies are heavily involved with the satellite industry, which is now an essential component of the global economy and communications network. Although Britain only has a small, 2% global share of the manufacture of space vehicles, it holds around 11% of the operations market and 10% of the applications market for the services and data provided by satellites. In fact the UK makes up between 6-8% of the global space market by overall turnover. The industry has an ambitious target to almost triple its turnover to £40bn by 2030. Meanwhile, the government hopes to build the country’s first ever commercial spaceport in the near future, recognising the growing importance of private spaceflight.
The UK is involved with space in other ways too. Virgin Galactic, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is developing space planes to take tourists on suborbital flights. Meanwhile, British company Reaction Engines Limited is developing a reusable space plane which would use innovative air-breathing rocket engines to achieve orbit. This technology could reduce the cost of orbital flight by 90% and be used to launch satellites or propel passengers from London to Sydney in four hours. It’s hoped this technology will be ready by 2030, and it could become one of Britain’s greatest scientific achievements of the 21st century.
In terms of space exploration, the British government’s UK Space Agency provides around 10% of the European Space Agency budget, and so the UK will have a hand in all of the ESA’s projects, including developing a Mars rover for the proposed ExoMars mission. The UK’s first probe to another planet was the Beagle 2, sent to Mars as part of the ESA’s Mars Express, landing in 2003. Unfortunately, it failed to deploy properly and its fate was unknown until it was finally discovered in 2015 by Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Nonetheless, Britain became one of just three countries to land a probe on Mars.
It’s clear that in order for the British space industry to reach its ambitious target, and for the UK Space Agency to continue to play a major role in the ESA, the country needs more young people to aspire to work in the space technology sector and take up STEM subjects. High profile successes like Major Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station could play a big part in achieving that goal. In fact, he’s already contributed to this by chatting with pupils via radio at a school in St Albans on the 8th of January. Other schools are due to follow suit over the course of the six month mission.
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