Special report: The CAs working in space
Space race 2.0
You would be forgiven for thinking that whereas the space race was once a contest between superpowers, it is now about high-profile multi-billionaires attempting to outdo each other while living out their childhood dreams.
Beyond the headlines, though, there are hundreds of companies in the UK at the cutting edge of this burgeoning industry, seeking to harness satellite technology to do anything from making semiconductors in space, to vastly reducing the cost of installing wi-fi in remote areas, to facilitating efforts to reach net-zero targets.
While there are a vast number of brilliant scientists and engineers behind these projects, those start-ups can burn through investment at a lightning rate – often with the hoped-for returns several years in the distance. And so, as the industry grows, so does the need for CAs.
In this special report we speak to the UK Space Agency to understand the business landscape in low-Earth orbit (read here), and hear from CAs in the industry – one of whom works at the Shetland Space Centre – about the opportunities in this exciting sector (read below).
As Tom Duncan CA, VP of satellite firm Inmarsat, says, “When I tell people I’m an accountant working in space, their ears twitch and their eyes light up.”
The UK’s space industry is expanding fast, but it needs more accountants, not astronauts. Christian Koch meets the CAs working in the biggest sector of all – the cosmos
For millennia, people have craned their necks upwards to the night sky and tried to make sense of the vast, unknowable, glittery panoply of stars, constellations and nebulae that lie above. More often than not, this has involved making mathematical calculations.
As far back as 36,000BC, our Stone Age ancestors were carving bones with moon-shaped marks to represent lunar days of the month. The ancient Babylonians could track Jupiter, calculating where the planet would sit on the horizon every 60 or 120 days. A thousand or so years later the great medieval Islamic scholars helped birth modern astronomy, with observatories and astrolabes measuring the positions of the stars and the planets.
As the years and technologies progressed, these celestial calculations got more complex: tallying the number of stars in the cosmos (200 billion trillion), the number of light years to the nearest black hole (1,600), the rate at which the universe is expanding (Hubble’s law) or whether there are any little green men out there (the Drake equation). The father of Neil Armstrong, the first person on the moon, was an auditor and it’s tempting to think that Stephen Koenig Armstrong’s accountancy skills may have imbued a similar logical mindset in his astronaut son.
Today, space is the subject of a very different kind of astronomical arithmetic – how to monetise it and how to audit it. The gravitational heart of the Space Race 2.0 is as much about accountants as astronauts. Here two CAs working in space – figuratively if not yet literally – reveal the many ways to enter this most astronomical of sectors.
Name: Tom Duncan CA
Title: Vice-Predisent Finance, Chief Technology Office
Company Speciality: Satellite Communications
When I tell people that I’m an accountant, I typically get a fairly lukewarm response. But when I tell people I’m an accountant working in space, their ears twitch and their eyes light up. It shows the level of excitement in the space sector right now.
I’m head of the finance team in the technology office at Inmarsat, a UK firm operating satellites to enable global mobile connectivity. If you want to do a Teams call on a plane or watch Netflix on a ship, there won’t be an O2 cell tower in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean or in the clouds. But our services can help. So, yes, my job involves the usual management accounting. But it also involves forecasting, building business cases and developing long-term investment appraisals for all of our future technology and satellites.
As you can imagine, satellites aren’t cheap. They can cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Satellites aren’t flash-in-the-pan, let’s-just-do-it decisions either. We design satellites to last 15-plus years, some the size of double-decker buses. If something goes wrong with one of our satellites, you can’t fix it as you would a car or house. Therefore, the finance teams at Inmarsat do lots of interesting financial modelling to make sure the returns on the material costs [of our satellites] are worth it. You end up building decades-long financial models to assess whether it’s worth spending the hundreds of millions of pounds involved.
I joined Inmarsat from EY in 2017 and I truly love my job. I get to work with some incredibly bright people, such as our satellite engineers. These engineers and our finance team share one thing in common: we all find logic and numbers interesting, and love unravelling a puzzle. Being able to speak their language a bit makes for some insightful conversations.
This new space race is defined by the commercial world waking up to its opportunities. This potential is vast and unbounded. The likes of SpaceX, whose satellites are much smaller than ours and operate in low Earth orbit – Inmarsat satellites are in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above Earth – means the competition is real. And it’s good competition, keeping the technology growing and fresh. It keeps companies such as Inmarsat on our toes.
Looking at the segment we serve and the wider industry, there’s some real sci-fi stuff going on which would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. For me, one of the most credible is solar technology: satellites converting light from the sun into power, which could help the Earth’s energy crisis. Meanwhile, the growing demand for satellite data is an area where accountants and data analysts can really add value. All the puzzle pieces are there; they just need somebody to make commercial sense of it. For CAs, some of these jobs are less outside your comfort zone than you may think. If you see a job in the space sector, it’s definitely worth applying.
Name: Bill Gibb CA
Company Speciality: Spaceports
Location: Grantown-on-Spey and Unst
Some years ago I read the sci-fi novel, The Many-Colored Land by Julian May, which talks about a spaceport in Shetland. Like most sci-fi, it seemed far-fetched. But 40 years after it was published, it’s now a reality.
I work for SaxaVord, the UK’s first vertical satellite launch facility and ground station, which has a spaceport on Unst, the northernmost Shetland island. It’s home to 600 people and nearer to Norway than Edinburgh. But Unst is perfect for launching satellites: we can launch safely over the sea, away from populated areas and plane routes. We began repurposing a former airbase there in 2017 – our founder, Frank Strang, is an ex-RAF officer – and we’re aiming for our first suborbital launch by the end of this year.
Sci-fi has long predicted private enterprise would rule space and it’s happening right now, in part because it’s become cheaper to launch satellites. Until recently, they were the size of washing machines. Now, businesses such as SpaceX are launching satellites the size of a Rubik’s cube, sent up in constellations. The orbits decay in four to seven years, but that’s okay because when they become defunct, the tech will have moved on.
During the California gold rush, the people who made the money weren’t the gold-diggers, but the people selling the picks and shovels. That’s what SaxaVord does: we don’t have rockets, but a spaceport where customers such as Lockheed Martin and Astra can launch satellites. We’ve just signed up with SpaceX, which is putting its own ground stations in Shetland.
SaxaVord currently has planning permission for three pads and three hangars, with one pad built already. We’ve also got a data business: turning satellite data into information is a trillion-dollar market. Unst is perfect for data: we can see satellites more often and for longer here.
Because Unst is so remote, we have a service line providing accommodation, office facilities and storage. There’s plenty of potential for, say, satellite fuelling firms, while manufacturing could also move to Shetland. Why should a European-based company continue to transport metres-long rocket bodies to Shetland when it could site a manufacturing facility there? We could boost the local economy, like the Scottish oil industry did during the 1970s – and when local kids get jobs, they’ll stay on the island.
Adverse publicity aside, Virgin Orbit’s failure hasn’t harmed us. They are a horizontal launch with less proven tech, whereas we’re vertical. There will be so many opportunities in space for future generations. One of the biggest is mining minerals in the asteroid belt, which are already broken up, so the mining is partly done. Then there’s solar power, orbital habitats and conducting exotic research in the low-gravity orbit. As the industry develops, CAs with commercial nous will be needed, although if I were starting again, I’d get an IT degree as well as my CA.
My job isn’t without its challenges, however. There isn’t any other spaceport with a private-use business model for us to use as a blueprint, so we need to use six-quarter rolling forecasts to keep up with change as we learn. Now, much of my time is spent working on the commercial side, client agreements, operational decisions and risk management.
Whenever I visit our site at Unst – which currently looks like a huge Meccano set – the scale of what we’re achieving is hard to ignore. Until recently, Unst was all about its scenery and sheep. Now it’s the gateway to a whole new industry.
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