UK government reconfirms satellite programme

The UK government has confirmed the UK Space Agency’s Connectivity in Low-Earth Orbit (C-LEO) programme will provide up to £160m of funding over the next four years to UK companies and researchers to develop innovative satellite communications technology.

The government regards satellite communication as a “vital technology”, and believes the commercial market for space communications is undergoing fundamental market evolution. As a result, the C-LEO programme has been designed to ensure the UK space sector is able to compete in the rapidly growing global market of low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations.

The scheme was first announced in August 2023, hot on the heels of a scathing report from the UK’s House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee warning that time is running out for it to translate high-level ambitions into practical plans, and that there is “not a moment to lose” if the UK is to realise the full potential of the currently booming space sector.

Noting that space-based platforms will be key to offering connectivity in remote and rural parts of the country, bridging the stubbornly remaining digital divide, the UK government pinpointed LEO satellites as representing the next generation of space technology, offering unparalleled resilience and resistance to disabling attempts. It added that LEO satellites’ vital importance was demonstrated during Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, when they ensured continuous and reliable connectivity, even in the most challenging circumstances.

The C-LEO scheme is designed to build on the country’s established and growing satellite industry by providing UK researchers and businesses with critical support to drive the development of new constellations. This would include supporting smarter satellites with better hardware, using artificial intelligence (AI) to make data delivery faster, and connecting satellites together for improved connection – all creating interconnected networks serving billions worldwide.

The proposed scheme would ensure UK businesses are supported in developing the next generation of LEO satellites, driving the UK’s satellite industry towards global leadership. To propel the UK’s capabilities and long-term ambitions in the space sector, the government is exploring grant funding of up to £100m.

It’s also exploring whether to support this grant funding with an additional £60m from the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) UK-backed Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems programme, which supports UK industry in delivering commercial satellite communications infrastructure.

The government package is also being complemented by a range of live 5G integration projects such as the 5G testing facility at ESCAT in Harwell, Oxfordshire, aiming to establish networks in underserved and remote areas, bringing high-speed connections to every part of the UK, while addressing a major priority to improve future telecoms, as laid out in the government’s Science and Technology Framework.

The government believes the development would mark the country’s most significant ever investment in satellite communications, unleashing the country’s potential to become a global giant of the satellite industry while creating hundreds of highly skilled jobs.

It added that the scheme would establish UK leadership in many critical areas for the next generation of LEO satellite communication technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. C-LEO would also aim to deliver the R&D needed to support the launch of hundreds of satellites into space, no less than “revolutionising” the UK’s communication infrastructure and closing connectivity gaps.

The confirmed C-LEO funding will support the development of smarter satellites with better hardware, the use of AI to make data delivery faster, and improved connections between satellites – all creating interconnected networks serving billions worldwide. The UK Space Agency will be launching the first C-LEO funding call shortly.

The announcement also follows the reintroduction of the UK’s National Space Council, as part of its mission to become a space superpower. However, as noted by the UK’s House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, the industry is still attempting to deal with the shockwaves from the much-publicised failure of the Virgin Orbit Start Me Up horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay on 9 January 2023.

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