The space sector in Yorkshire has been experiencing significant growth in recent years, with the development of a space hub for Yorkshire playing a crucial role in this expansion. Yorkshire may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about space technologies, but the region has been making significant strides in the space sector, positioning itself as a key player in the UK.
At the centre of these developments has been the Space Hub Yorkshire, founded by Professor Anna Hogg, an Associate Professor of Earth Observation at the University of Leeds (as seen in the main image above). Going back to 2019, Professor Hogg and colleagues began having conversations with the UK Space Agency about the possibility of establishing a regional space cluster due to Yorkshire’s large geographical area and the fact that 10% of the UK’s student population is trained in Yorkshire.
Despite having many fantastic research institutions and facilities, alongside many innovative commercial companies, Yorkshire wasn’t known for its expertise in the space sector but in 2020, alongside Mandy Ridyard (who now serves as Chief Business Advisor to Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire) and Glenn McCauley, a Research and Innovation Adviser at the University of Leeds, Professor Hogg co-authored a proposal, including a strategy to put Yorkshire on the global stage when it came to space. The proposal set out to create a new space cluster as a way of coordinating academic and commercial activities to become a catalyst for further development, as well as facilitating collaborations between companies that hadn’t previously worked together.
The UK Space Agency has provided funding for Space Hub Yorkshire to harness the region's space expertise, develop its local space sector and grow its regional economy. The Agency’s Unlocking Space for Business programme is bringing the untapped benefits of space and satellites — through enhanced imagery, connectivity and navigation capabilities — to organisations that are new to the sector.
Lydia Green, Head of Unlocking Space for Business at the UK Space Agency, said: “As the cost of accessing space continues to fall and the pace of innovation increases, we are working to help businesses harness the advantages offered by satellites.
“Sectors as diverse as transport and finance have a huge opportunity to bring the benefits of satellite data down to Earth and improve their operations. We want to help tackle the barriers facing organisations that have not traditionally used satellite data or services — for example, Space Hub Yorkshire is delivering GreenSpace, which is opening up new markets for the space sector by aligning the UK's expertise in Earth Observation and its leadership in Green Finance and net zero ambitions. This will help bring further investment into the growing space sector in Yorkshire and across the UK and deliver greater benefits for businesses, people, and the environment.”
Alongside funding from the UK Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult brought additional funding focused on capability and clustering expertise from different places. As Yorkshire is a leader in Earth observation, this meant it was ideally placed to lead a bid for an Earth Observation Network. The bid was successful and the network was officially launched at an event at the University of Leeds on Thursday 18th January 2024.
Image: Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, spoke at the launch event for UK-EONS, which was held at the University of Leeds on 18th January 2024.
Nafeesa Dajda, Director for National Capability at the Satellite Applications Catapult commented: “Developing a vibrant UK Space Ecosystem remains a primary focus of the Satellite Applications Catapult. With the launch of the first CCN [Connected Capability Network] … we bring together space industry capabilities from around the UK and create opportunities for people to work together on Earth observation applications. The CCN will foster robust ties between academia and industry, support channels for consistent communication, and offer essential support services along with access to technical expertise. The launch of the first CCN is a significant milestone in our ongoing commitment to cultivating a thriving and connected UK Space Ecosystem.”
Mandy Ridyard, who now chairs Space Hub Yorkshire, and also spoke at the Earth Observation Network Launch event, explained: “Yorkshire has a proud connection with the space sector as the very first UK astronaut, Helen Sharman, was from Yorkshire, but when we talk about space in the context of the event, we're not talking about astronauts and rockets, although they are part of the bigger picture.
“The space sector is split into upstream and downstream. Downstream is the use of data. Upstream is the manufacture of satellites and ground infrastructure that allows us to get that data and package it better.
“When we mapped the potential for the sector regionally, we discovered three main strengths in Yorkshire. Firstly, there was manufacturing, so no surprise there, secondly there was digital, so the use of data, and thirdly there was connectivity, which is all around comms. There's a huge heritage in this region around this, stemming from a University of Leeds spin out, that has created a significant cluster of RF businesses here. Those three areas cross over with each other with overlaps between our industry and academia, so it all fits together brilliantly.”
World-leading expertise can be found in Bradford. Professor Ifiok Otung, Director of the Bradford-Renduchintala Centre for Space AI, said: “The University of Bradford has extensive links to the space, AI and telecommunications sector in Yorkshire, the UK and beyond. Many of these people, who are experts in their own right, sit on our Innovation and Skills Advisory Board, and they help us shape the content of our MSc.
“In addition, we provide training for those in industry to update their knowledge of AI, RF and satellite systems — our last three-day course ran in October and was attended by 28 people. These connections also enable us to offer placements to students on our MSc in Satellite Systems Engineering.
“Our Centre for Space AI is also engaged in building a miniature satellite, which we plan to launch into space, and in October last year, we hosted the 40th International Communications Satellite Systems Conference, hosting space experts from NASA, ESA and the Japanese Space Agency, amongst others. Our programme acts as a gateway for graduates who want to pursue careers in the telecommunications sector.”
Steve Crow, Clarion’s Strategy Director, who sits on the Space Hub Yorkshire steering group, highlighted the market potential: “There are some great examples of businesses that are capitalising on the market opportunity in the emerging satellite market where Yorkshire and the Humber has one of the leading radio frequency (RF) clusters in Europe.”
Brighouse-based, Peak Communications are specialists in Satellite Communication Systems. They design, manufacture and supply high-quality commercial radio frequency (RF) satellite communications equipment. Their managing director, Michael Kitson, has been working in the RF satcom industry for nearly three decades; a company that started from humble beginnings in his dad’s garage. His dad has stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business in his retirement, but Michael still runs the company with the original values and standards.
The company designs bespoke, made-to-order, frequency converters to send signals up and back down from the satellites. They also manufacture support products that sit alongside; such as — redundancy converters, test loop translators, beacon receivers and other equipment required to set up a satellite link. Michael explains:
“Our products sell worldwide. Our main customers tend to be communications or television companies who are broadcasting outside or live news feeds. We also sell to military and government customers too.
“Satellite and broadcasting technologies are ever-changing and require further increases in frequency. Customers are needing higher definition pictures; they're trying to get more information into the transport stream, so we are making higher frequency converters to allow for larger bandwidths allowing for more data to be transmitted.
“We have military customers who buy commercial products; that tends to involve going to war-torn countries and places in the world where there's some kind of conflict. You don't want to go all the way to the middle of the desert, switch on your equipment and find out it doesn't work, so we pride ourselves on quality and reliability.”
One of the greatest benefits of involvement with Space Hub Yorkshire must be to learn from the experiences of others. Andy Butt, Head of Business Development and Commercial at Reliance Precision, a company that has extensive expertise in working on large manufacturing contracts within the space sector, explains that this takes considered preparation and encourages other firms to do their research carefully:
“The timeline for space products is typically long, so even for something relatively simple like a gearbox or a pointing mechanism there’s about five years between design and completion of qualification programmes. And they are exceptionally rigorous, exceptionally costly and exceptionally time-consuming. So, I would caution any business looking to get into the industry that this isn't a way to make a quick buck. It's a long-term investment in generating a skill set and a capability in their organisation to give them access to longer-term opportunities.
“But, related to that, the benefits of investing in R&D and the benefits of space as a market are that, once you've got over that qualification hurdle, there's normally a good number of opportunities on the back of it because the market is risk-averse and it likes to reuse the same product.”
Jonathan Bray, AMRC’s Senior Engagement Manager for Space, said: “The UK is facing a huge growth in the space sector, but it feels inaccessible to many businesses. As a member of Space Hub Yorkshire, we hope to help drive further opportunities for non-space technologies and advanced manufacturing techniques across the region. Unlocking space for the people and businesses of Yorkshire will help to create new collaborations and investment.”
The best part is that all this expertise is available to Yorkshire manufacturers on their doorsteps. Could the glamour and excitement of space be part of the solution to addressing the well-documented shortage of young people pursuing STEM careers? Professor Anna Hogg thinks so:
“We also wanted to use the cluster to inspire the next generation of scientists and space sector experts — kids in schools and people studying in our brilliant universities. Space, in my view, has a little bit of a branding problem because what degree do you study or what school subjects do you study to pursue a career in the space sector? The honest answer is that you can study almost anything.
“If you wanted to study communications and law, there's a place for you in space companies and agencies doing that work. You can imagine fantastic engineering students, whether it's mechanical, electrical or other types of hardware engineering and they'll be producing that high precision manufacturing and the instruments that are required for our satellites and rocket launchers. Or equally, you could be a data scientist, like me, making use of these brilliant instruments and taking the deluge of data that we now acquire all over Earth all of the time to try and understand how Earth's environment is changing and where the change is most rapid. So, it felt like the timing was perfect.”
Another Yorkshire figure who is passionate about helping raise awareness amongst the next generation is Paul Stockhill, vice-chair of Doncaster UTC, managing director of Doncaster-based precision engineering company and proud Made in Yorkshire member, Agemaspark, who is well known in the region as a space sector aficionado: “We get involved in a wide range of engineering projects and have made parts for the International Space Station as well as having components go to Mars!”
So, whether it’s manufacturing for the space sector itself or it’s harnessing adjacent opportunities in other sectors, it looks like space really is the next frontier for manufacturers in Yorkshire.