In the summer of 2020, four tech giants established a new national consortium to amplify the already bustling UK space industry. Lockheed Martin UK, CGI, Cerco, and Inmarsat have formed Athena, as they call it, a national team of extraordinary prowess.
Kevin Creaven, Serco Chief Executive UK & Europe, commented:
“I am delighted to introduce Athena as an exciting new team that will deliver enhanced space-based technologies and services from the UK. Athena will boost British capabilities, as well as the economy, via growth in this fast-moving, developing sector. The launch of Athena also ensures diversity and choice in the UK space sector for future sustainable development.”
With vertical launches soon to take place from UK soil, the nation’s already burgeoning space sector is now a fascinating realm of investment and development for all involved. And to get their share of the market, some companies choose to build alliances and gain more influence on the sphere.
Who Is in the Consortium?
UK-native Serco is one of the world’s largest government services/public sector firms. It consists of over 50,000 employees, covering around 500 contracts in the realms of transport, health, and defence to name but a few.
Serco has been working with the ESA since its creation, meaning the firm has decades of experience in supporting government space projects, as well as supplying leading services and offerings for other companies in the sector. Notably, Serco has supported Earth observation and astronomical space missions, covering real-time satellite operations amongst other feats of industry.
Serco appears to be taking the lead role in the Athena consortium; it highlights across several press releases that Serco was the company to “declare” the accompanying members of its team. As part of the UK’s Skynet 5, a vast UK MoD satellite-communications project, Serco is a major subcontractor, a position of which Athena will surely benefit from.
A risk assessment from the 2017 Paradise Papers described the firm as a “high-risk” client, with a “history of problems, failures, fatal errors and overcharging”. For example, a recent issue in 2019 cost the firm a fine of almost £20 million, for fraud and false accounting reporting to the Ministry of Justice.
British satellite telecommunications firm Inmarsat is the one that has a vibrant history in satellite communication technologies. Providing global mobile services, the firm owns and operates 14 satellites in orbit for 3 of the world’s foremost networks, otherwise known as the Global Xpress (GX) satellite constellation.
In recent years, Inmarsat has delivered over and above, according to many industry onlookers. In the face of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, the firm still pushes ahead with plans to expand the GX constellation by five more satellites.
As part of Athena, it can be assumed that the firm will be leveraged not only for its satellite fleet and services but also their extensive portfolio of broadband, Internet of Things (IoT) and other innovative offerings.
Canadian-founded firm CGI is a multinational IT and business service provider, employing some 76,00 people across 400 locations worldwide. Among its repertoire of expertise, the firm handles major big data programmes and data processing at national scales, notably winning several multi-million-dollar contracts in military, medical and space sectors.
More specifically, in the context of space, CGI has provided ground-to-orbit solutions for satellites and satellite communications users. This includes anything from government, defence and transport, to media, utilities and emergency services. The firm is known for delivering mission-critical space software systems, leveraging cutting edge technology, science and expertise in their operations.
In 2014 CGI’s UK Space, Defence, and National Security division received a contract to build “core infrastructure” for the Galileo Commercial Service, a key project in Europe’s largest satellite project which went live in 2016. Although that was perhaps just one significant step, CGI proudly highlights that is has worked with the European space industry for some time, which includes the delivery of a facility that, at the time, controlled Galileo’s 30 satellites.
In recent news, CGI won a contract by the European Space Agency (ESA) to apply artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies to satellite communications, as part of the ESA’s ambitions for their Autonomous Satcom Solution programme, which also includes involvement from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).
Whilst the role of CGI as part of Athena is yet to be fully detailed publicly, their background and current involvements in satellite, AI and 5G technologies will be front and centre going forward.
Lockheed Martin UK
Perhaps the most contentious addition to the team, supporting some 20,000 employees in the UK, the British arm of the largest US military behemoth Lockheed Martin will most certainly provide engineering, industry expertise, and influence to Athena.
While Lockheed is the world’s largest defense contractor, their major customer is the US government, with Department of Defense accounting for around a half of company’s revenue. Meanwhile space projects take only 20% of company’s activities and revenue.
With a demonstrable track-record spanning almost a century, Lockheed Martin UK, though primarily a military services provider, is one of the major firms committed to building the first-ever commercial spaceport in the UK. Unfortunately, along the way, there have been commitment issues from Lockheed Martin in the creation of the spaceports.
Previously, Lockheed Martin worked with Orbex as the two received almost $40 million in grants to build the Sutherland spaceport. It was until late 2020, two years into the project, that Lockheed Martin announced it would instead be moving its operations to another UK spaceport, the Shetland Space Centre, due to differing “technical requirements”.
Though speculative, the move did come shortly after the Athena consortium’s announcement, and it is most likely that these matters were already in motion prior to the official formation of Athena.
Notably, satellite/space-specific trade deals between the US and UK are well underway; in 2020 the U.S.-UK Technology Safeguards Agreement was signed, a means to streamline the space and technology supply chains between the two nations. Athena stands to benefit hugely from this deal, as the team is multinational, with strong ties to the US via Lockheed Martin and their partner for rocket development – a California-based ABL Space Systems. It seems that with such partnerships and the TSA the money for British national initiatives might land in American pockets.
The UK is presently setting the stage for its first-ever vertical rocket launch; upon the completion of a number of vertical and horizontal commercial spaceports, the UK will once again be considered a space-faring nation. These trends are making Athena’s arrival rather timely as long as they strive to collaboratively attract innovation and investment to the UK space. However, the whole situation might turn out less beneficial if consortium members intend to take advantage of the market and keep up with the dynamic changes within the New Space industry under the sauce of joint initiative.
It isn’t the most widely known fact, but the UK is one of the largest contributors to the international space industry than it would seem. Currently, the UK represents a 6.5% share of the global space economy, and with the country now in post-Brexit, it seems as though Athena is here to further highlight the rather significant glimmers of opportunity on the horizon.