The UK Is Heavily Investing in Space Infrastructure Through New £50 Million Fund
Last month, the UK government launched the Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF), a £50 million ($63.81 million) pilot initiative to support projects developing infrastructure for space exploration and commerce. The fund is the nation’s first solely dedicated to UK space infrastructure projects, primarily intended for commercial businesses seeking to build, develop, or upgrade space infrastructure facilities, such as spacecraft testing and launch sites.
In its initial pilot stage, the SCIF plans to match funds for 5 to 10 projects for up to £10 million ($12.76 million) each and run through March 2025. Both the industry and academic sectors are eligible to apply.
Its goal is to help businesses test and manufacture high-value products for spacecraft so that they can be brought to market more quickly, Christopher McQuire, Head of Local Growth at the UK Space Agency, told SpaceRef, calling the announcement “an exciting first for the UK space agency.”
According to McQuire, SCIF will meet a need for smaller companies in the UK space industry who are looking to scale up production and get products mission ready, but may not be able to afford the millions it could cost to develop their own infrastructure. “What we’re looking to address is … that bit between developing a product and then being able to scale it up,” said McQuire. “Infrastructure is really expensive, and a lot of investors are put off from investing in it because they don’t get a lot of return until quite far in the future. So there’s a role for government there to try and de-risk some of that.”
McQuire said that some companies have already reached out to the agency to apply for funds to build microgravity facilities, develop quantum technologies, and design new propulsion systems. “Essentially the thing that all of these proposals will have in common is that there needs to be an addressable market that will deliver real benefits to the UK,” he said.
McQuire added he’s “not sure” what type of proposals the agency will receive, because the application is intentionally not prescriptive. “It’s possible we’ll come across something we haven’t come across before.”
In addition to supporting smaller companies, the SCIF is meant to create opportunities across different parts of the UK than the usual hotspots for funding and investment, which are typically concentrated in high-income, metropolitan areas, like London and the southeast. “One of our ambitions is to make sure that we are delivering R&D funding to a more geographically diverse spread of places across the UK,” McQuire said.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has recently allocated funds to several space-related ventures on the heels of the National Space Strategy. The strategy, published by the UK government in 2021, is a commitment to build on the UK’s space market, which is worth £17.5 billion ($22.32 billion) to the UK economy. The UK space sector has grown five percent in the past year, mostly from satellite manufacturing and development. The UK Space Agency’s funding for national projects, including SCIF, is in addition to £1.84 billion ($2.35 billion) invested by the European Space Agency in November 2022.
In January, the UK Space Agency provided £50 million for satellite communications projects, then in April it launched a £20 million fund for international space projects. “This is another of a sequence of funding opportunities that they’ve been putting out to try to encourage growth in the space sector in the UK,” Iain Woodhouse, a geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh and co-founder of Earth Blox, a satellite imaging software firm that received funding from the UKSA in 2020, told SpaceRef.
The UK space sector, as a whole, is growing quickly, particularly in Scotland, explained Woodhouse. In the next 12 months, the UK’s first ever vertical rocket is set to launch into space in either Sutherland or the Shetland Isles. “That’s an example of the kind of infrastructure that would also apply [to this funding],“ Woodhouse speculated, “if you’re building infrastructure to launch CubeSats into space.” He added that he has not discussed the types of proposals other researchers at Edinburgh plan to submit.
McQuire said he hopes that in the future, SCIF can grow past the pilot stage. “We can then make the case for doing more for longer. We would look to establish, hopefully, SCIF as a longer-term sustainable program that will create an environment in the UK which is attractive to space businesses, in particular, to start up and grow,” he said.