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Space Exploration: Igniting Curiosity, Fuelling Progress

by Eddie Rayner

Serco Group is a British multinational company that operates in the outsourcing services sector, providing a wide range of services to governments and private sector clients around the world. Serco’s services span various industries including defence, transport, healthcare, justice, immigration, and, one of the fastest-moving sectors today, space, where it provides support services for satellite operations, space exploration, and related activities. We caught up with Amar Vora, Head of Space at Serco Middle East, to talk about the company’s expanding presence in Saudi Arabia and its new graduate programme for students looking to move into the space sector.

“We have been running a graduate management programme globally that is quite generic, and in the UK and across Europe we have also offered entry-level and apprenticeship roles in the space sector. But we never really thought to bring the two together, until now,” Amar begins.

“Space is one of the pillars that is identified in Vision 2030 as being a priority.”

“But now the time is right. It’s really down to the market and the region that we’re working in, especially with the trajectory that Saudi Arabia is currently on. Obviously, Vision 2030 is a big agenda at the moment as the Kingdom moves away from oil and gas, and space is one of the pillars that is identified in the Vision as being a priority.”

With the Saudi National Space Strategy due to be launched later this year, Amar believes that there will be a big emphasis on the development of human capital skills in the region. “Globally, there’s a big issue around space skills shortage, so we looked into what we could do to support the sector within Saudi Arabia.

“Their qualifications do not have to be space-specific as long as they can demonstrate that they have a passion for space”

“It’s really about developing future national leaders within space in the Kingdom and, although we launched our Saudi space division back in March this year, so it’s still quite new, our plans are to recruit and enable nationals to lead and deliver space services in the Kingdom and across the region. We’ve seen that there is actually a lot of good talent coming out of university in terms of space knowledge, but we need to find a way to allow this knowledge to be applied in an operational context, which is why, through this programme we’ve created, we are essentially in the right place at the right time!”

Space: Where Dreams Take Flight

A good graduate is someone who combines their education with a strong set of personal qualities, skills, and the drive to continually develop and contribute positively to their field of expertise and the community. But which specific skills are Serco looking for and what qualifications should graduates have for consideration for its new graduate programme? 

“They should be recent or soon-to-be graduates and, in this case, Saudi nationals that have a STEM background,” Amar explains. “Their qualifications do not have to be space-specific as long as they can demonstrate that they have a passion for space, either through their own studies or through extracurricular activities. Typically, we would look for someone with an aerospace or mechanical or electrical engineering background, or even a computer science background, but if they’ve demonstrated a passion for space that’s a big plus.

“And as with the sector as a whole, Serco tends to look for applicants with a Bachelor’s Degree, although a Master’s would be preferable. It’s all about a candidate’s willingness to learn and willingness to work in a team, as well as their ability to work in an international environment. This latter point is important because we’ll be taking these graduates on operational contracts in Europe for a few months; they need to be comfortable and be able to work in this environment. They need to be conversant in different languages too, not just Arabic but also in English. Familiarity and comfort with being in a multinational environment, that’s really important for us.

“At Serco, we’ve been working in the space sector for 40 years, providing services to major space agencies”

Innovation that Reaches for the Stars

In this first two-year programme, Serco is looking to bring in two Saudi national graduate engineers, but in the longer term, it will be broadening its criteria and increasing the number of graduates it accepts.

“The two roles we are currently seeking to fill are actually specialist roles in the space sector: the first one will be a graduate spacecraft operations engineer who will be operating spacecraft, and the second is a graduate space data engineer who will be developing the knowledge and expertise to manage the data that we acquire from satellites,” Amar says.

“At Serco, we’ve been working in the space sector for 40 years, providing services to major space agencies, so what better way to develop the operational skills of the graduates than embed them into some of the world’s leading international facilities? So the graduate operations engineer will go for six months to Darmstadt in Germany, which is basically the home for the European Space Agency’s spacecraft operations, and it’s also where we have large teams operating spacecraft through Serco facilities on behalf of the European Space Agency. As a result, this engineer will be able to immerse him/herself in that role and be able to operate real spacecraft in orbit and become familiar with that, working alongside some of the industry experts we have at Serco.

“The second engineer will go to Frascati in Italy where the European Space Agency has its European Centre for Earth Observation. This is the hub for imaging from space and where we catalogue all the data that we acquire and study how that data can be utilised on the ground. We have a team of earth observation engineers that develop solutions to manage and exploit the data for the good of humankind, and the graduate will go and work alongside these engineers, supporting the European Space Agency programme. 

“Both of the graduates will then return to the Kingdom with their newly acquired skills and continue the programme for another year and a half, which will expose them to some of the contracts and services and activities Serco has here in Saudi Arabia. This will hopefully give them the necessary exposure and insight to help deliver our future services in the space sector in the Kingdom, and help them to become future leaders.”

“Space is a really powerful tool on a global, national and regional scale”

Exploring the Cosmos, Inspiring Humanity

The applications period is short,running from 1-14 August, with Serco selecting toward the end of the month, interviewing in September, and onboarding the engineers by October. However, it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ because many more opportunities will be presented in the coming years, fuelled by Saudi Arabia’s ambition to position itself as a space sector leader.

“Part of Vision 2030 is to become more knowledge-based and space really has a big role to play,” says Amar. “Probably when most people think about space, and rightly so, they think about rockets and astronauts, but actually space is extremely diverse. It has big potential to impact the environment positively and affect social policies, and, what for me is key, the data we acquire from space has the potential to impact many different sectors.

“So when I talk about data, what do I mean? Well, earth observation is the imagery of the earth in different forms, such as communications from space and navigation, which to you and me is more commonly known as GPS. So what roles can these things play? Satellite-based communications are being used globally right now to bridge the digital divide for people by providing communications in the most remote of places, where terrestrial infrastructure just wouldn’t be possible or economically viable. They can be used to improve operational efficiencies in many industries; typically the Internet of Things, machine-related services, and communications in remote regions, so we see industries such as mining using satellite communications to communicate with their vehicles in these remote places and autonomously control them. Then there are different defence and security applications.

“I think earth observation and imagery, and extracting information from this imagery, is extremely powerful for a lot of non-space sectors, such as agriculture, maritime, and infrastructure development. All of these sectors I’m naming play a big part in some of the major projects happening in Saudi Arabia. So we can also say the space sector supports future food security, the monitoring of vegetation, and health parameters, and it gives us the ability to make recommendations for improvements. You can monitor urban infrastructure projects from space, you can monitor parameters to see how the marine environment is reacting and ultimately protect it. And more importantly, it’s being used to monitor our climate and measure the impacts of climate change, helping us to create a more sustainable environment globally. So space is a really powerful tool on a global, national and regional scale.”

Beyond Boundaries, Among the Stars 

“All companies and all countries should start to adopt a space strategy because there is value in doing that,” Amar says. “Serco, across all of the space services we offer, impacts along the space value chain, so essentially we want to be space integrators in Saudi Arabia, managing and bringing together expertise across industry, academia, research, and government. 

“Serco embeds expertise into space agencies and has been doing so for several decades now. We help to develop and deliver space programmes, we help to operate spacecraft, to manage the ground infrastructure that essentially operates spacecraft, and we’re looking to bring all of this expertise into Saudi Arabia to support government and industry with their growth ambitions. And when it comes to data, we manage the largest data platform globally on behalf of the European Space Agency, providing access to our data, including over 65 million images. So it’s this kind of platform that gives access to the wider community, allowing it to exploit this data across a number of scenarios in order to achieve positive results for people and the planet, and I really hope that within Serco and within the team we bring in with the graduates, we can start to localise these services and deliver these capabilities into the Kingdom.”