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As the space sector flourishes, it’s time to take UK ambition to the stars


6 min read Partner content

What we do next in outer space is crucial to the future of humanity and of our planet – and the UK has a vital role to play say experts and Parliamentarians.

Commercial space activity represents a real opportunity for the UK – but with that opportunity comes a responsibility to explore the cosmos sustainably, argues a new report. On Space brings together analysis by academics from across The University of Manchester on the future of space policy and research – and it says there is huge potential to be realised.

“The global space industry is expected to grow from an estimated £270 billion in 2019 to £490 billion by 2030,” writes Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomic Society in the report. “In the UK, the space sector currently employs as many as 45,000 people, and our ambitions in space are expanding to reflect this global evolution.”

Highlighting how the Government’s National Space Strategy brings together civil and defence policy in a “joint vision” for the future, she continues by calling planned UK launch sites and spaceports an “exciting prospect for the sector, and for local communities who are hosting these economy-boosting activities”.

But, the report argues, outer space is more than just a commercial opportunity; it’s also an environment we have a duty to take care of. With increasing levels of space-based infrastructure supporting life on Earth – including satellites for GPS navigation and global communications – space is becoming more crowded, and the threat of debris and collisions is on the rise. Some space activity – such as remote sensing information – is even helping to drive the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on Earth. So how can we ensure that we approach space exploration sustainably, and use emerging space technologies to further our own net zero ambitions back on Earth?

A key part of the solution is Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) satellite technology, which reduces collision risk and radiation damage, as well as facilitating end-of-life deorbit. Dr Peter Roberts points out that the UK is at the forefront of developing the commercially viable use of VLEO, but adds that funding is required to enable the UK to maintain its global lead on this area and to help sure up commercial viability. Meanwhile, both national and international space policy will need to adapt to encourage and even mandate VLEO use in order to prioritise low orbits for commercial space activity and reserve higher orbits for science and manned space missions.

Chi Onwurah, Vice-Chair of the Space All-Party Parliamentary Group and Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Innovation commented: “A UK space sector is essential to the challenges of the 21st century and beyond, such as meeting net-zero and pioneering new technologies to use on earth, as well as exploration.

“Labour has committed to raising R&D spending to 3% of our GDP by 2030, almost doubling the current government's spend of just 1.7%. This investment would enable the sector to fulfil its untapped potential, providing substantial regional growth and bringing diversified employment opportunities to new areas of the UK.”

The report also sets out a graphene-led vision that it says can help realise the huge opportunities for both economies and for improving life on Earth. Graphene is an advanced material first isolated in 2004 by Nobel Prize-winning scientists at The University of Manchester – and its ultra-light, ultra-rigid properties mean it has transformative potential in building the lighter space habitats of the future.

“Space and its microgravity – the condition in which people or objects appear to be weightless – offers a new frontier, especially for scientists looking to take advantage of this environment to pioneer research in a variety of fields that could benefit life on Earth,” write Dr Vivek Koncherry and James Baker in On Space.

Arguing for a UK Space Habitat programme that fosters cutting-edge research into microgravity and innovates to support a permanent human UK presence in outer space, they add: “If we focus on manufacturing, some of the biggest challenges to space habitats can be solved through the use of graphene and other 2D materials – areas in which the UK has substantial expertise.

“The UK’s global lead in advanced materials science and aerospace means we should be more ambitious with our space-manufacturing programme.” 

Building a Graphene Space Habitat facility in Manchester, Koncherry and Baker go on to explain, will act as a beacon for inward investment, contribute to levelling up in the region and could even help accelerate the development of greener technologies for use here on Earth.

“The idea of building new ways to ‘live and work’ in space may sound futuristic, but the vast opportunities for our economy and for major scientific breakthroughs are real,” they write. “We must not let this opportunity pass us by.”

Echoing these sentiments, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Chair of the Lords’ Select Committee on Science and Technology, said space was a “critical area of technology today”, adding: “It offers opportunities for the UK to build a strong position through regulations, for example of the commercial satellite sector, and through London’s leading position in space insurance. It is also a sector that can pull through the UK’s strengths in other areas by offering early applications for example, for ultra-lightweight advanced materials like graphene, and ultra-low energy electronics.”

Angus Brendan MacNeil, SNP MP and Vice-Chair of the Space APPG, echoed the important role of satellites across the UK and said, "This is a huge area of growth.”

Meanwhile, Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, called the UK’s space sector “well-established and globally respected”, pointing out that it employs some 47,000 people and generates an annual income of £16.5 billion.

“We are committed to growing this exciting sector further by capitalising on the UK’s strengths, such as our leading small satellite industry, becoming the first country in Europe to offer launch capabilities and leading the way in space sustainability,” he added.

“As the On Space report highlights, the global space economy represents a huge opportunity for the UK. The Government’s National Space Strategy sets out a vision to build one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world. We are delivering that by catalysing investment into the sector, backing innovative companies such as SatixFy, whose antenna technology is advancing satellite communications. We’re also supporting new missions and capabilities like the James Webb Space Telescope which is redefining our understanding of the cosmos or the new FORUM mission, which will provide unique measurements of our planet’s infra-red energy to improve our understanding of the climate.”

Touching upon topics such as UK-China space relations and how off-world habitation could stimulate sustainability on Earth, On Space also argues for prioritising adaptable international collaborations as a key part of UK and international space policy.

The full report can be read here.


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