An influx of money and resources is transforming an Oxfordshire science centre into a hub of space research Matt Oliver reports from Harwell

OXFORDSHIRE has long been at the forefront of cutting-edge science.

And now its space industry, currently centred around the Harwell Oxford Science and Innovation Campus, near Didcot, is starting to take off.

In just a year, the site has seen the arrival of both the Government-funded Satellite Applications Catapult and the European Space Agency (ESA) as well as a £7m pledge of support from universities and science minister David Willetts. These all amount to a huge vote of confidence in Harwell.

That has been followed by visits from Business Secretary Dr Vince Cable, above, last August and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, below, last month.

The Government hopes Britain will be able to secure 10 per cent of the £400bn it expects the sector to be worth worldwide by 2030 – and Oxford is a key player. In fact, in a November report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, it was declared that Harwell could even become “a central hub of space activity in the UK”.

At Harwell, much of the focus is on satellite technology and finding new and creative ways to use it. And that does not just mean ways to take better pictures for Google Maps.

These days satellites play a crucial part in our everyday lives, involving everything from signals to television set-top boxes, to the GPS data that smartphones use in navigation applications.

New advances could allow us to scan the ocean depths, allow portable medical equipment to communicate with hospitals from rural areas and even help organise the computerised cities of the future.

Catapults, formerly known as Technology and Innovation Centres, are tasked with helping scientists turn their breakthroughs into business ventures.

At the moment the Harwell Catapult facility receives about £10m of annual government funding, but that figure is expected to drop in years to come as more private investment starts to flow in.

Chief Executive Stuart Martin says Oxfordshire, Reading and Swindon could eventually be responsible for up to 30 per cent of the UK’s space industry by 2030.

That would mean the creation of about 30,000 skilled jobs in the area, out of a 100,000 being created nationally.

Mr Martin said: “The UK has always been dominant in satellite communication and broadcasting thanks to companies like Sky, Immarsat and Astrium.

“At the moment the biggest economic activity in space is elsewhere in the UK, but if this region becomes the heart of it, then a 20 to 30 per cent share is what we are looking for.

“What we are doing at Harwell is building up the next generation of big companies for the next 20 years – your future Googles and Facebooks. But for the space sector. One of our major aims is to inspire the next generation through to that point. There is fantastic potential within Oxfordshire.”

More joint projects with ESA are also expected, with Catapult working closely with it on a daily basis, he added.

Mr Martin said: “They have seen the way the UK has changed its perspective on space over the last few years and how we have engaged more with European projects. That is why they put their satellite centre for Europe there. We are doing a lot of work with them all the time.

“The expectation is that as Harwell grows, so will we and so will they.”

It seems the space race is well and truly back on. And this time Oxfordshire could be leading the way.

Weather app is good news for coffee farmers

WeatherSafe is an app that alerts coffee bean growers in Rwanda and Guatemala about weather conditions that could affect their crops.

This is important information for them, because factors such as humidity, temperature and soil moisture can determine the final quality of the coffee – and the sale price.

The app transmits live data collected from farmed areas to mobile devices and gives advice to the farmers.

The firm which employs four people is based at Harwell and was awarded an £89,000 grant in June 2013 by the Government’s Technology Strategy Board.

It also received a grant of £41,000 from the ESA Business Incubation Centre.


  • The Government wants the UK space sector to be worth £40bn by 2030.
  • Oxfordshire could be responsible for making 20-30 per cent of that amount, according to one chief executive.
  • More than 4,500 people work at the Harwell science park and about 150 organisations are based there.
  • Also based at the park is the Diamond Light Source synchrotron – a massive donut-shaped facility that focuses light to a level 10 billion times brighter than the sun, to act as an extremely powerful microscope.

Search by time

  • iGeolise is a map service, above, that allows you to search by travel time instead of distance.
  • That can be useful in sectors such as property, where a place might be far away yet have excellent transport links.
  • Fresh figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), this year, showed that about half of commuters travel for 30 minutes or more.
  • Software like iGeolise makes finding a home within travel-distance of one’s workplace a simple process. It could also be used for restaurants, classified sales ads, shops and dating websites.
  • The five-man firm, started by directors Charlie Davies and Peter Lilley, has partnered with Countrywide Group PLC, Britain’s largest estate agents.

Mission to Mars

RAL Space is one example of a larger company, employing 200 staff at Harwell, which has contributed to major ESA missions.

A spectrometer, pictured, designed by the firm, will be used on the 2018 ExoMars mission, launching in 2016.

The ExoMars rover will use the device to look for signs of organic material in samples of rock on the red planet, then send the readings back to scientists on Earth.

It has received more than £5m from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to fund its research.

ESA in Harwell

  • The European Space Agency (ESA) moved into Harwell last May and announced plans for a new building that will enable it to bring in an extra 100 employees.
  • This is in addition to the business incubator it already has on the site.
  • It is the first time ESA has established such a base in the UK.
  • The building is expected to be built by May 2015.
  • Officials will no doubt be hoping to take advantage of its proximity to other firms at Harwell.
  • Its operations will focus on satellite technology, like Catapult, and ways it can be used to tackle issues such as climate change, weather forecasting and global positioning systems.