Lockheed Martin plans UK satellite factory in boost for British space industry
Defence giant Lockheed Martin plans to build its first satellite factory outside the US on British soil in a boost to the growing space industry . The US company has been scouting out suppliers in the Newcastle area, where Britain has an existing hub of space companies.
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Lockheed Martin, known for its F-35 fifth-generation warplanes, sees the UK as a growing market for the sector thanks to spaceports in Cornwall and Shetland that offer local launch capabilities.
It is willing to make an investment that could bring 2,000 jobs to the UK if the Government opens up the next phase of its £6bn Skynet military communications programme to competitive bidding, according to UK chief Paul Livingston.
Satellites for the Skynet network are currently made by Airbus and a new batch is soon to be ordered for the newest iteration of the programme.
Lockheed Martin’s investment in a new facility in Britain is not contingent on winning the bid, said Mr Livingston, but the UK must show it is open to other suppliers, he added.
“We’re looking at the business case right now and I want to know for certain that the UK is going to compete,” Mr Livingston added.
“There’s two phases, there’s deciding it’s a competition, and then there’s deciding who’s won. If we wait until we’ve won, to put a spade in the ground, we won’t deliver the satellites on time.”
Skynet will be an increasingly important part of the UK’s defences as space becomes a more contested environment. The next generation of warships and fighter jets will also rely on rapid, secure data communication delivered via satellites.
Babcock last week won a competitive round of bids to operate the satellite network, worth £400m, beating BT, Serco and Airbus.
Space is worth £16.5bn to the British economy and the industry employs 47,000 people, according to the UK Space Agency. Glasgow alone manufactures more satellites than anywhere else in Europe, according to Scottish Development International.
The UK hosted its first space launch last month, with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit blasting off from Cornwall. The mission ended in failure but interest in launches from the UK has not waned.
Mr Livingstone said: “There’s enough export work in the space market to support more than one facility. It’s definitely an area where the UK could really get ahead by increasing its manufacturing capability.”
Britain is an attractive market for investment because of its new National Satellite Test Facility at Harwell in Oxfordshire.
Testing is crucial before sending a satellite into space, given the great expense associated with launches. Machines are tested to ensure they can survive the stresses of being hurled into the atmosphere and the wide temperature swings in space, tests colloquially referred to as “shake and bake”.
The global satellite industry is dominated by the US where the industry is supported by Nasa’s deep pockets. However, Europe’s Airbus and Britain’s BAE Systems also operate space businesses here.
Amongst other things, BAE has experience in the so-called hardening process of preparing computer chips for the harsh environment of space, working on processors included on the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Satellites are used mainly for communication and positioning for navigation. However, space is seen as a growing field for investment given rising interest from both militaries and industry.
Some manufacturers hope that floating factories may one day be launched into space. Orbit offers low gravity, very low temperatures and no oxygen, an environment in which the creation of many previously impossible alloys become a prospect.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “Space is increasingly important for maintaining battlefield advantage, and it’s crucial we continue to push the frontiers of our space ambitions, enhancing our military resilience and strengthening our nation’s security.”