British government to promote space industry exports

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FARNBOROUGH, England — The British government announced July 19 a new effort to help space companies in the country win business outside of Europe amid concerns about the effects Brexit will have on the industry.

In a speech at the Farnborough International Airshow, Liam Fox, the minister for international trade, said the government would initiate a “Space Exports Campaign” with a particular focus on the United States and India.

Fox said the campaign would leverage the British space industry’s strengths, particularly in emerging fields like small satellites, to create new export opportunities for companies in the space sector.

“As companies across the world begin to realize the transformative potential of small satellite technology and its commercial applications, our established industry and space export network is ideally placed to become the world’s leading supplier,” he said.

Fox said his department will provide “dedicated support” to U.K. space companies for the first time, but didn’t elaborate on what that support would entail. According to a separate statement, Antony Philipson, the government’s trade commissioner, will lead trade missions to the United States and India focused on space in the near future, while the U.K.’s Department of International Trade will recruit British space sector experts to address the Indian market.

The government picked those two countries for its initial space export campaign because they represented large potential markets. Fox cited an estimated £1.5 billion ($1.95 billion) of potential deals in the U.S. market, as well as research by his department that identified “significant untapped demand within the Indian space sector, ideally suited to the strengths of our own companies.” He didn’t discuss specific opportunities in either country.

Other government and industry officials backed the effort. “What is happening now is real momentum, a real government push behind really gripping those new export opportunities,” said Alice Bunn, international director for the U.K. Space Agency, in comments after Fox’s speech.

That government push, she said, also includes potential regulatory reform, building global partnerships, and ensuring government agencies are working together to promote space exports.

“Perhaps in the past, government has not been as joined-up as it could be in providing business certainty for trading with some countries,” she said. “That is something we will be leaning into in the coming months, making sure that those departments that are primarily about prosperity will coordinate very well with those departments that are mainly about security in order to provide a clear framework and business certainty.”

Fox said that the space export campaign won’t be limited to the United States and India. “We have ambitions to go much further,” he said. “Already, a survey of the U.K. industry has indicated markets of interest such as Japan, China and countries in the Middle East.”

This new effort takes place as British companies face uncertainty about their ability to do business in Europe when the U.K. exits the European Union next year. British companies are already facing obstacles to working on some E.U. satellite programs, like the Galileo navigation system, because those companies will no longer be in the E.U. after next March.

Brexit did not come up in Fox’s remarks, but others in the country’s space industry expressed concerns since it’s not clear if the E.U. and the U.K. governments will be able to negotiate a deal that could allow companies to retain European market access and avoid a unnegotiated or “hard” Brexit.

“When Brexit takes its final form, then we’ll know what those challenges really are, but at the moment we’re all kind of guessing what will come,” said Chris Larmour, chief executive of small launch vehicle company Orbex, in a July 16 interview. The company is headquartered in the U.K. but does much of its development work in Denmark, although it plans to build a factory in Scotland for its Prime launch vehicle.

The uncertainty about Brexit is a major issue for Orbex since the company currently plans to focus on European customers, offering launch services it believes will be more convenient that those available elsewhere. “We have various scenarios right now, from the worst to the best,” he said. “There are different consequences at each end of the scale.”

Brexit, though, has created opportunities for his company as well, such as a renewed focus on development of British launch vehicles and a launch site in the country announced earlier in the week. “Here we are today winning grant funding from the U.K. government to support a U.K. launch system,” he said on the day the U.K. Space Agency announced a £5.5 million grant to Orbex.

Others emphasized the importance of exports regardless of the outcome of Brexit negotiations. “I think we have to be very cautious to understand that we are one nation playing in a global market,” said Stuart McIntyre, chief executive of Orbital Access, a launch vehicle startup, during a July 18 “LaunchUK” workshop here. “The U.K. market will not support a U.K. industry on its own. This has to be built on an export platform.”

The announcement of the space export campaign capped off a major week for the U.K.’s space industry, which included highly publicized announcements on spaceports and launch systems and a debate about space policy in the House of Commons July 18 led by Sam Gyimah, the science minister. “This has been a fantastic week for space,” said Graham Peters, chairman of the industry group UKspace, in remarks introducing Fox.

“The government is unequivocal in our support for the U.K. space industry,” Fox said. “We will do all that we can to help you continue to thrive, both here and overseas.”