U.K. military seeks to ride wave of commercial space innovation

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The United Kingdom produces 40 percent of the world’s small satellites and 25 percent of telecom spacecraft.

LONDON — At the annual Global Milsatcom conference that kicked off Tuesday, U.K. officials are trying to stir enthusiasm about the nation’s space business and highlighting the growing convergence between government and private-sector investments.

As a major producer of satellites, the United Kingdom boasts a $14 billion a year space business that employs 14,000 people. Satellite services account for more than $300 million in annual economic activity. Britain produces 40 percent of the world’s small satellites and 25 percent of telecom spacecraft.

The military is looking for ways to tap into the space boom, said General Sir Chris Deverell, commander of the U.K. Joint Forces Command. The command is responsible for Britain’s military satellite communications.

“We have swallowed the innovation pill,” he said in a keynote speech to a large audience of space executives. He said the military is not just embracing buzzwords but is seeking actual “solutions” to change how the armed forces exploit space systems.

One of the biggest topics of conversation at the conference is the Ministry of Defence’s largest space project, the recapitalization of the Skynet constellation that provides telecommunications to the U.K. military.

The first Skynet was launched in 1969. The current system, the Skynet 5, will need to be replaced in the coming decade. The incumbent contractor is Airbus. The MoD has not yet signed a contract for the future Skynet 6 satellites — an estimated $8 billion project over 20 years. Officials have invited industry representatives to discuss the future of Skynet at a private meeting in London on Friday. Top players in the industry have pushed the MoD to open up the work to new competitors.

As the MoD debates its next move on Skynet, “We hope we can exploit the changes in the environment,” said Nick Ayling, head of U.K. MoD space policy. “I think we should be as open as we can to new commercial models and technologies,” he said. “It’d be surprising to me, if we do that, that it didn’t lead to major capability enhancements.”

Air Commodore Nick Hay, head of C4ISR at Joint Forces Command, said the government expects the next Skynet to improve global connectivity but also to do so more efficiently. The MoD has yet to decide how to move forward under its partnership with Airbus and whether it will retain the company to build and operate the Skynet 6A geostationary military communications satellite, scheduled to be operational by mid-2025. The MoD signed an outsourcing agreement with Airbus for Skynet 5 that expires in 2022.

The MoD also is investing in small satellites. It owns 60 percent of the Carbonite-1 microsatellite that was launched in 2015, although it’s not yet clear how it will use it. “We’re still trying to figure out what to do with it,” a U.K. MoD official told SpaceNews. The 150-pound Carbonite is owned and operated by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, uses a commercial camera and telescope to take videos and still images of the Earth.

It’s been long speculated that the U.K. wants to return to launching satellites into space, a business it gave up decades ago. Ayling said the nation’s space agency is weighing the pros and cons, but suggested that a domestic launch push is far from certain.

Brexit is another issue that has stirred concern in the space sector. There is uncertainty about the future U.K. role in the European Space Agency and specifically in the Galileo project — Europe’s global navigation satellite system. Deverell, of Joint Forces Command, said Brexit should not prevent the military from participating in Galileo or from cooperating with EU space programs. But Ayling later cautioned that the way ahead is uncertain. He said the U.K. government will put off a decision on Galileo or any European space ventures until final Brexit terms are settled.