Catherine Johns, Business Durham's innovation and business growth director, tells The Northern Echo how the region's space and satellite industry is primed for the next stage in its journey
IT’S impossible to see the Soyuz space module up close and not be inspired.
The tiny craft took British astronaut Tim Peake and two colleagues up to the International Space Station in 2016, and brought them back to earth safely.
What struck me is how small it is and how fragile it appears, particularly when you look at the scorch marks left by re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
It is an amazing symbol of courage, scientific endeavour and imagination.
We are lucky that the Soyuz TMA-19M has landed in our region for two months, giving thousands of people the opportunity to take a closer look at a craft that has travelled to space and back.
How fitting then, that it is on display at the National Railway Museum in Shildon, County Durham.
Here, we have a spaceship that represents the latest developments in 21st Century engineering alongside examples of British innovation going back 300 years.
Tim Peake, who has been reunited with the Soyuz that brought him home, is a remarkable man and an inspirational figure.
Visitors to Shildon can get a feel for what he went through by taking part in a virtual reality experience called Space Descent VR, in which he narrates what it was like to make that dramatic 250-mile journey from the space station.
The space industry is pushing at physical and technological boundaries, just as the railways did all those years ago, and the Soyuz is an emblem of that relentless desire to explore, which appears to be such a fundamental emotional need.
Its arrival in County Durham could not have been timelier, as the North-East’s space and satellite industry sets course for the next stage in its journey.
We already boast strong links to the sector through the likes of Durham University and its work on telescopes; Kromek, the company based at NETPark, near Sedgefield, which devised a chip to monitor radiation levels on the NASA Mars Curiosity mission; NETPark biotech company Reprocell, which devised experiments for use on board the International Space Station; and e2E, the satellite communications company in Gateshead.
Our links with the space industry go beyond the universities and companies involved with the technology that goes into space.
Without being aware of it, most of us reap the benefits of satellites every day, whether through TV, satnav systems or weather reports that rely on data gathered in space.
Here in the region, we have been steadily forging stronger links with key organisations involved in the sector, with Business Durham acting as the gateway.
We have the North-East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence, co-funded by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the UK Space Agency and managed by Business Durham, helping organisations solve problems and open opportunities.
Alongside that is the UK Space Agency Incubation Programme, delivered by the Centre of Excellence, to provide support to companies looking to diversify into the space sector.
We are also a partner in STEPHANIE, an EU Interreg Europe programme allowing partners working on photonics technology in space to exchange knowledge.
These organisations have come to the North-East because there is a recognition that our ability to pull together and harness expertise across the public, private and academic sectors means the region can play a crucial role of meeting the Government’s target of growing the space sector, currently worth about £13.7bn, to £40bn by 2030.
They are important in bringing funding to the region as we seek to grow a critical mass of space related businesses and services.
Business Durham is proud to be a lynchpin in this process and we work in four ways:
• Making the time to sit down with businesses and work with them to look for opportunities
• Enabling companies to participate in large projects such as the European Large Telescope
• Horizon scanning for opportunities in major issues such as Artificial Intelligence and the data economy, clean growth, healthy ageing and the future of mobility
• Looking at ways of tackling challenges that face society In many ways, it is this latter point and how we use the data gathered in space that offers the region the biggest opportunities.
Part of the mission of the North-East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence is based on the theme ‘satellites for a safer world’.
It is not all about the technology that goes into orbit, it is about how it is used here on Earth to improve the quality of life of people in our villages, towns and cities, not just in the North-East, but in the UK and around the world.
The opportunities are almost endless, whether it is using the data to devise early flood warning systems, improving transport and logistics, air quality monitoring or providing data for farmers.
Some of our companies are showing what can be done, such as Realrider, a motorcycle crash detection app developed in Gateshead, and the region’s growing drone capability as illustrated by Washington-based Superfly Guys, which offers services such as building inspection using thermal imaging technology.
The market opportunities are huge and so are the potential commercial benefits for the new and growing businesses that can grasp them.
For the North-East, which has proved its ability to solve problems and re-invent itself, it will bring investment and jobs.
Soyuz and Tim Peake are a source of inspiration and a real opportunity for us to showcase the equally inspirational space industry located right here in the North-East.