Telespazio VEGA UK chief executive Peter Young

Telespazio VEGA UK chief executive Peter Young

Beyond your imagination

Satellites in orbit are changing everyday life on Earth in ways that most of us don’t even realise, as Telespazio VEGA UK chief executive Peter Young tells Karen Peattie.

If you have a smartphone, it’s unlikely that you spend much time marvelling at its capabilities – all you want to do is make that call, send that text or check something on the internet. Not quite sure how to get to your destination? Don’t worry – satnav will get you there. Each of these tasks is possible thanks to technologies that most people take for granted. As Peter Young, chief executive at Telespazio VEGA UK, explains: “All of these – and more – rely on space technology. Space technology is having a huge impact on our lives without us realising it,” he says.

“There are the everyday things we all take for granted – satnav, TV, smartphones, withdrawing cash at the ATM – but the way we use space, and specifically the data from satellites, is helping the world in ways that most people wouldn’t think.”

Satellites are increasingly offering solutions that have an impact on our everyday lives in a positive way – telecommunications, navigation and meteorology are just some of them. In the same way that a smartphone beams its data directly to and from satellites orbiting the Earth, the data gleaned from satellites can be used to benefit agriculture, marine, life sciences and transport.

Data can be used to make the world more energy-efficient, help make cities more sustainable and also understand climate change. Young continues: “The work we do in space has created new markets and new technologies. Not only are these impacting on the way we live our lives, they are having a major impact on the economy and creating jobs in an industry that will become even more important in the years to come.”

Luton-based Young, who graduated from the University of Edinburgh, has experience in the technology, aerospace and defence industries spanning 30-plus years. He joined VEGA Group in 2001 and, while corporate development director, was responsible for a number of mergers and acquisitions (M&As). Following VEGA’s acquisition by Finmeccanica in 2008, he was responsible for its integration into Finmeccanica and subsequent merger with SELEX Sistemi Integrati.

As business development and strategy director of the expanded company, in 2010 he was responsible for shaping the company’s space activities to create a new entity for sale to Telespazio, a joint venture between Finmeccanica and Thales. Young was appointed chief executive of VEGA Space in 2010 and the following year took on the role of senior vice-president of Telespazio’s satellite systems business unit based in Rome.

It’s an impressive CV and his skills include the ability to explain what the space exploration industries are in a very easy way. Essentially, it breaks down into two categories – upstream and downstream. Manufacturing satellites and hardware comes under the upstream umbrella, while the downstream side of the space industry is about creating applications using data collected from space.

“Downstream exploits technology such as financial services – including ATMs – and telecommunications for out-of-the way places such as cruise ships,” he explains. “Despite great advances, it’s still relatively new so it’s a tremendously exciting industry to be in just now.”

Young’s organisation has been concentrating on downstream technology for the past five years, building a global reputation for delivering high-value, quality systems and services. It also specialises in geographic information systems (GIS), which monitor and analyse weather systems. “We’re involved in flood mapping in the UK, for example, and using data to understand what happens when an area floods and implementing predictive analysis to help prevent it reoccurring,” Young explains. “The same technology can be used in other parts of the world. In Malaysia, illegal foresting has caused flooding and the data from satellite technology can help us understand what actually happens and how to prevent it.”

Flooding is just one of the processes that the company analyses. Checking the weather forecast may be second nature for people going about their daily business but few will fully understand that modern weather forecasting applies scientific knowledge to predict future conditions and that space technology plays a significant role in predicting weather patterns.

Just a few days into 2017 the press ran a story that may well have been missed as people returned to work. It highlighted a long-running rift in the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica that had grown suddenly in December – only a final 20 kilometres of ice now connects an iceberg one-quarter the size of Wales to its parent ice shelf.

So, what does this mean? In recent years, scientists have predicted that – due to the combination of summer ice melting, annual decrease in ice extent and ice pack drift driven by wind and current – there will soon be open water at the North Pole. In due course, the Arctic will be almost completely ice-free in the summer months.

Evidence shows the poles are warming much more rapidly than the rest of the world as heat-reflective ice is replaced by heat-absorbing water. Some believe the warming poles are already affecting the weather, weakening and displacing the jet stream in the northern hemisphere – and perhaps even increasing the frequency and impact of extreme weather events.

However, the flip side is that the melting Arctic is opening new, shorter routes for sea transport – shorter journeys are more economic because they require less fuel. The retreat of the ice is also opening new areas rich in mineral resources and oil. With this comes increased human activity with the need for remote sensing services to monitor, ensure safety, protect the environment and manage assets efficiently.

Telespazio VEGA UK and companies in the Telespazio group are focused on developing and providing such services. COSMO-SkyMed, for example, provides a very wide field of view and multiple revisits to the Arctic gives it an unrivalled ability to image the North Pole. In 2012, a campaign was initiated by its sister company, e-GEOS, to monitor ice movement at the pole through the Arctic summer.

Telespazio VEGA UK and its partners reacted by quickly developing an educational ice-charting smartphone application and associated website, providing daily updates combining a range of ice charts, radar images and science data targeted at interested members of the public and students. Developed from conception to going live in Apple’s app store in less than two months, the North Pole Watch app captured and brought to the public a daily update of record events as they occurred.

As predicted, the ice retreated beyond the record set in September 2007 – a record broken towards the end of August 2012. The ice continued to shrink until mid-September that year, not quite reaching the pole but getting within a few hundred kilometres. This was recorded on the COSMO-SkyMed images with the public able to follow updates on the app, demonstrating the power of geo-information combined with modern smartphone and tablet delivery.

Telespazio VEGA UK is also involved in the European Union-funded Galileo satellite navigation programme, which – when fully operational – will provide satellite services to a wide variety of users throughout the world. It is also working on Copernicus, described as the “most ambitious Earth observation programme to date”.

The aim of Copernicus, led by the European Commission in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), is to provide accurate, timely and easily accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change, and ensure civil security.

It provides a unified system through which vast amounts of data are fed into a range of thematic information services designed to benefit the environment, the way we live, humanitarian needs and support effective policy-making for a more sustainable future. These services fall into six main categories: land management; the marine environment; the atmosphere; emergency response; security; and climate change.

In order to highlight the importance of satellite technology, Young makes reference to a YouTube post entitled “If there were a day without satellites” which offers a thought-provoking message about what could happen if signals were to be lost should a major solar storm hit Earth.

People can’t access satellite news, the global positioning system (GPS) satellites that assist aircraft landing fail, and fisherman find that their satellite phones no longer work, leaving them cut off and out at sea. Electronic fund transfer systems shut down, banking systems around the world fail, access to the internet is lost. The shutdown inhibits weather forecasting, and government and defence communications fail. Billions of people are affected. But, in a few days, power grids come back online. Satnav and communications systems are recovered, new satellites are launched. The world returns to normal with warfare and major outbreaks of crime averted. Could it happen?

No-one knows, of course, but the most recent statistics from the UK Space Agency demonstrate the growth of the sector and how our reliance on satellite technology is becoming increasingly important for global economies. The agency’s latest survey – it is carried out every two years – revealed that the UK space industry is now worth £13.7bn to the UK economy.

Telespazio VEGA UK chief executive Peter YoungProduced by London Economics and unveiled in December, the ‘Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2016’ report represents the definitive latest source of information on the UK space sector. It shows that space continues to be a key infrastructure for the UK, supporting more than £250bn of output across the economy with telecommunications, navigation, earth observation and meteorology services.

The sector is now estimated to directly employ 38,500 people. With output per worker almost three times the UK average, the sector is highly productive and has a workforce that is among the most highly skilled in the economy, with three in four employees holding at least a primary degree.

Firms are also positive in their expectations for the future. Seven in 10 of those that responded expect their income to grow over the next few years, and over half expect export sales to grow. Exports are an important source of income for the sector, accounting for over one-third of revenues in 2014-15. With a range of improvements to method and more than twice as many companies responding, this latest report provides the most robust evidence yet on the main characteristics of the UK space industry and on perceived challenges and opportunities in the future.

Meanwhile, Young points to Scotland as an emerging player in the space industry, bolstered by the fact that leading industry figures from around the world are gathering in Glasgow in February for the inaugural Data.Space conference to deliver insights into the latest innovative products and services derived from space technologies.

Hosted by the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA), this two-day international conference at the Technology & Innovation Centre in Glasgow is focusing on the use of satellite data and information in developing solutions. It brings together data and service providers with users and markets to provide a key networking platforms to identify opportunities.

Collaboration, suggests Young, will play a pivotal role in advancing innovation in the future with events such as this also raising awareness of potential career opportunities, inspiring the next generation of space explorers. It’s an industry that needs scientists, engineers, software developers, astrophysicists, geophysicists, geologists – the list goes on.

The nation was gripped when Major Tim Peake became the first British ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station, launching in December 2015 and returning to Earth last June. During his six-month stint in space, he conducted a spacewalk to repair the station’s power supply, drove a rover across a simulated Mars terrain from space and helped dock two spacecraft.

Peake also took part in numerous experiments for ESA and international partners with highlights including using the space station airlock to study his lungs, monitoring his sleeping patterns to learn how humans adapt to life without normal daylight, and recording how many calories he consumed to prepare for missions further from Earth. And who can forget him ‘running’ the London marathon from space on a treadmill?

Peake’s adventure certainly grabbed the headlines, in much the same way that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did when they walked on the Moon in 1969, inspiring youngsters to discover more about ‘what lies out there’ and learn about space in what became known as the ‘Apollo effect’.

A team from the University of York will be monitoring the impact of Peake’s high-profile mission. But will there be a ‘Tim Peake effect’? According to Young, the fact that a British astronaut has completed a successful mission can only be a good thing for the space industry. “He did a lot important scientific experiments and the mission received worldwide recognition,” Young points out. “If the UK can tap into that and if companies can benefit from the spin-off then it is definitely worth taxpayers’ money. Look at how engaged schoolchildren were with the mission – it’s also about inspiring the next generation and, while I’m not sure if we’ll see the ‘Tim Peake effect’, we’re certainly already seeing an upsurge in interest in schools. Ask kids what excites them and the answer usually includes dinosaurs and space.

“Scotland’s universities have a world-renowned reputation and that, in turn, creates a highly-qualified workforce with the skills our industry needs.”

Back on the ground, Prestwick airport in Ayrshire has edged closer to securing a spaceport after signing a memorandum of understanding with California-based space launch vehicle designer XCOR Aerospace and space plane design and operating company Orbital Access. It has also signed a formal partnership agreement with Houston Spaceport.

Other sites, including Campbeltown on the west coast of Scotland and Newquay in Cornwall, are also interested. The UK Government wants to establish an operational commercial spaceport by 2018. “Geographically Scotland is ideally positioned for this because it offers very good remote sites away from centres of population,” says Young. “It all adds to the interest around the space industry and the way companies are collaborating.”