updated 3/23/2010 7:41:59 PM ET 2010-03-23T23:41:59

Britain's first space agency will begin operating next month in an effort to coordinate the country's space activities while raising its profile in the global space economy, officials said Tuesday.

With an initial operating budget of 230 million pounds ($346 million) — modest compared with NASA's yearly $19 billion — the government said the new UK Space Agency would nevertheless create tens of thousands of jobs while developing a recession-defying industry that up to now has received little attention.

The country's 6 billion-pound ($9 billion) space industry "is one of Britain's real success stories," Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said. "Year-on-year it provides more jobs both directly and indirectly to the U.K. work force."

In the U.K., the industry is focused on robotics, telecommunications and manufacturing small satellites, while underpinning technologies such as high-speed broadband, GPS and weather forecasting.

It now supports 68,000 jobs, Mandelson said. But Science and Innovation Minister Paul Drayson suggested that 100,000 jobs could be created in 20 years, and that the industry could grow to be worth 40 billion pounds ($60 billion) annually.

When it begins operating April 1, the UK Space Agency will represent Britain's space interests in international negotiations, while also handling civilian space policy — now set by various departments and research councils, officials said.

Ministers also said a new 40 million-pound ($60 million) International Space Innovation Center would be built for using space data to understand climate change and develop strategies for securing space systems.

Britain has no plans for human spaceflights, and channels most of its space spending through the European Space Agency, which is exploring spaceflights to Mars.

Most European countries belong to or partner with the ESA to develop their space strategies, although some countries — including Italy, Spain, Germany and France — have their own space agencies as well.

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