Astronomical ambitions

Astronomical ambitions

The space race is on for British SMEs as they look to surge full throttle into a £7.5bn sector, writes Andrew Mernin.

THE life of an astronaut isn’t all zero gravity and wonderment. It has its down sides too, like space sickness, bone erosion and a stomach-whirling sensation of free falling. Then there is the psychological fallout. Six months in a cabin no bigger than the body of a Land Rover with a handful of work mates can do strange things to the brain.

Few people on Terra firma know more about the impact of space travel on the body than Dr Saralyn Mark, senior medical adviser to NASA, esteemed writer and president of SolaMed Solutions, which advises the American government and industry on all things medical and scientific.

The world renowned leader in women’s health landed in the UK this week to deliver a talk on gender issues in space, NASA’s goal to spread life through the universe and the effect that walking on the moon has on the heart. But this wasn’t a gathering of starry-eyed space fanciers. There were no robots, spacesuits or rock samples. This was about business – big business.

That the majority of delegates at the packed-to-capacity national Spacetech conference were from UK-based small businesses was a clear indicator of just how accessible the final frontier is becoming for the private sector. And, given the estimated £7.5bn value of the space sector in the UK alone, events like Spacetech, at NETPark, in Sedgefield, look set to become increasingly common in years to come.

While Dr Mark opened a window into the inner workings of NASA – and its noble mission to create a better life here on Earth – business leaders who’d braved the icy conditions shared one resounding question; where are the opportunities and how do I grasp them?

“As we’ve shifted our eyes from going to the moon, to think about Mars, asteroids and improving and advancing the international space station, you can see that there are opportunities for all of us from the medical community, scientific community and industry,” said Dr Mark.

She went on to outline the many unmet medical needs associated with space exploration which are there to be capitalised on by leading British pharma and biotech firms. Morbidity is a major concern of NASA. Although it hasn’t had to be faced yet, the prospect of safely handling a corpse on a craft is becoming more realistic as missions go deeper into space. Then, of course, the dawn of space tourism brings further challenges.

“As we go into the commercial realm we are going to see a lot more opportunities. Telemedicine [healthcare provision at a distance] is an extremely important part of what we do. We translate our telemedical capabilities to remote locations on earth. We’ve gone to Everest, we’ve gone to earthquake zones and we have several commercial space centres. So, we will be going to remote locations and we will be going on long duration exploration and we know that we will need exciting and innovative technology to keep our space explorers healthy.”

NASA’s shopping list for the future includes the next generation of smart devices, biosensors, genetic profiling and diagnosis technology, vaccines and biomaterials to name but a small fraction of the areas it has outlined for improvement in the years ahead. At the more science fiction end of the scale are biologically inspired robots, ‘virtual physicianing’ and artificial intelligence systems.

“In order for us to do space exploration the right way it’s going to require critical partnerships with the international community.”

“For UK firms looking to tap into the healthcare sector around NASA, the organisation has just funded the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space and they are very much open to telling [UK businesses] what they have to do to help foster these partnerships.

“It will play an important role in ensuring the space station is up to full capacity and the technologies for long duration exploration are in place.”

Away from the medical sector, for British-based smart engineers, IT, telecoms and other technology firms, there are “substantial opportunities” to get involved in the vast £1.5bn Square Kilometre Array.

Space 2So large is the radio telescope project – which aims to take astronomers back to the earliest moments of the universe – that it will only be visible as a complete entity from space.

Stretched over an area the size of a continent in either Australia and New Zealand or South Africa and several Indian Ocean islands, thousands of giant satellite dishes, antennae and other data capture devices will conspire to produce the most powerful radio telescope in history – by some distance.

If we are not alone, SKA will be the first to know, while the mysteries of dark energy and black holes could also be unlocked.

First light for SKA will be 2018 and, with the UK taking a lead role in the global project, British firms are thought to be well placed to get involved. Among those that already have include an engineering business in Wakefield and a nanotechnology spinout in the North East of England.

Space 3“There’s a lot of technology needed on the SKA project which is low risk and could simply be sold into the project,” said Tim Stevenson, one of the leading figures behind the project. “The high risk stuff is also going to be controlled to a much higher standard than projects like CERN. So substantial UK opportunities will exist.”

The system engineer added: “It’s a very long, drawn out process. We are currently in the process of effectively issuing an MOU to academically-led groups looking at 11 areas of the telescope for the next year.

“That will be extended for the next three years and, during that process, industry will be invited into those consortiums via nationally originated invitations.”

Technology companies which specialise in the transfer of data could be particularly in demand as  SKA’s launch nears. Once up and running it will produce enough data to fill 15 million 160GB iPods every day. Meanwhile, a current precursor to the project in Chile generates so much data that it has to be physically flown out of South America every week in a box of discs.

As Stevenson explained, businesses may need to play the long game when targeting SKA contracts. But the opportunities are certainly not beyond their reach.

“It will create thousands of high quality jobs, both at SPO [Ska Project Office] headquarters in the UK and at the sites of the telescope themselves. There are great opportunities for forward thinking companies,” he said.

“We’ll be looking for companies which can offer advanced manufacturing techniques and large production runs for the antennas and the millions of elements behind them.”

An important point of contact for UK companies and entrepreneurs looking to play the lucrative space game is the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) for aerospace, aviation and defence.

Its director, Dr Ruth Mallors, said: “The opportunities are huge in the space sector. Businesses need to get on the road and look for key events where there are clusters of people whom they can talk to.

“Using KTNs, for example, you’re going to reach the scientists, the engineers and the technologists rather than knocking on the door of big companies and speaking to their sales people.”

Whether businesses look to access the sector through KTNs or go straight to the industry’s epicentre by approaching NASA, there’s little doubt that the space race is on for forward-thinking SMEs.

The challenge now for business leaders with an eye on the night sky is to be patient, determined and willing to collaborate with new partners the world over.