How Northern Ireland is preparing to join the space race

by | 25 Sep 2023 | Blog Posts

Throughout history, Northern Ireland has consistently punched above its weight in engineering with expertise in both precision engineering as well as large scale projects. This remains true to this day especially when looking at the aerospace sector with Spirit AeroSystems (formerly Bombardier) and Thales being huge presences in Belfast not to mention the numerous other companies across the region with a substantial impact on the global aviation market such as Thompsons and Collins.

An overview of the Northern Irish aerospace industry – via ADS group

With that being said, the industry here has lagged behind the rest of the UK recently in terms of space based activity. According to a report by the Satellite Applications Catapult in 2022, NI represents only 0.16% of the value added to the wider UK space economy. This figure is based on data from 40 companies who were considered to be ‘space-related’, generating £28 million in the surveyed FY. (It should be noted also that most of these companies are not solely focused on space such as Springco who do have a heritage supplying springs to long-duration space missions but who also serve a wide range of industries.)

It can be easy to compare NI to a nation such as Scotland who have developed a remarkable space sector in recent years however there is one key factor which makes Scotland very space ready: geography. The remote parts of the Highlands make for excellent launch sites especially when delivering payloads to orbit. Most orbital rockets fly from west to east to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation and this factor has influenced the location of most major spaceports today. Europe’s only current space port is located in French Guiana in South America for this reason, all launches from the French territory fly out over the Atlantic ocean, as do all launches from Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral. Similarly, Scotland has the North Sea to its east and so efforts are being made to operate a spaceport in the Highlands with SaxaVord in Shetland having already sold several launches despite being still under construction.

Construction underway at SaxaVord spaceport, Shetland – via Saxavord

While Northern Ireland has no such locations for launch, it does have two features which it can take advantage of:

Size – Most industry in Northern Ireland is accessible within an hour by car making the entire country essentially one large space cluster should the opportunity arrive. Space clusters have proved a resounding success in mainland UK with Harwell and Westcott standing out for the amount of small space companies able to thrive in close proximity. The potential for new space businesses to spring up and prosper in a close knit entrepreneurial environment cannot be overstated is exactly what has allowed the UK to conquer the small satellite market. These clusters allow for rapid growth in areas outside of pre-established industrial zones such as London, a concept which will hopefully allow Northern Ireland to find its footing before tackling the global market.

Brexit – While it can feel like the dust hasn’t yet settled around Britain’s exit from the European Union over 3 years ago, one thing is clear: Northern Ireland will be the only country in the world with exclusive access to the UK and EU single market. The advantages of this are hard to quantify at present, however given how important ESA is to the commercial space industry and especially in an industry founded on cooperation between nations, Northern Ireland is in a hugely advantageous position compared to the rest of the UK.

Despite a lot of negativity surrounding a lack of substantial upstream activities, NI has grown strong downstream capabilities which have been able to thrive despite the lack of infrastructure available. Satellite applications is a segment which is currently worth more than any other in the UK and fortunately can operate independent of industry as long as there is an adequate supply of data scientists and analysts. There has been a push recently to grow the entire sector, upstream included, with the Northern Ireland Space Office (NISO) being a driving force for this. For the first time ever, the UK Space Conference will be held in Belfast this November, an event which will bring unprecedented attention to Northern Ireland not just from the UK but from the world over. This monumental achievement comes off the back of several announcements of investment to develop the market as well as pre-existing companies such as Thales Alenia Space committing to growing their operations.

The Northern Ireland Space Strategy has outlined all the steps needed to realise the vision of growing a thriving industry and it is an essential read for anyone who wishes to get excited about the potential opportunities which will be available here soon. It’s safe to say the future is bright for the industry in Northern Ireland, watch this space!