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The UK’s space journey is starting to take off

The UK’s space journey is starting to take off

The UK can now be a pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing, and exploitation of novel satellite technologies, writes David Morris MP. | PA Images

4 min read

As we look to rebuild the economy, the space sector can create hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled, technology-based jobs spread around the country.

It is now one year since the 2019 Queen’s Speech, when her majesty relayed that the Government was committed to “an ambitious national space strategy”. Since then battling Covid-19 has understandably been ministers’ main focus. But we have also seen the Prime Minister’s bold new space strategy beginning to take shape.

In the 21st century, investing in space does not have to mean funding flights to the Moon and sending probes to Mars. Earlier this year, the Government demonstrated its ambition to establish the UK as a world-leader in space technology with the £784m deal to rescue OneWeb. Through the ownership of a fleet of Low Earth orbit satellites, the UK can now be a pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing, and exploitation of novel satellite technologies.

On its own, OneWeb is not a replacement for the European Union’s Galileo programme, a £9bn project to build a military rival to America’s GPS. But in time, with its satellites including more navigation capacity, it could yet support the development of a sovereign Global Navigation Satellite System to rival GPS or the EU’s Galileo system.

For now, we still need to see the blueprint for such a system and sustained investment. To increase the UK space industry’s global market share, UKspace, the trade body for the UK space industry, is calling for a National Space Procurement Fund to enable a procurement programme of British products and services. The industry has also said it could match fund further investment from the Chancellor's new National Space Innovation Programme.

In the months ahead, investing in space could be one of the key ways in which we drive the economy forwards in the UK. As we look to rebuild the economy, the space sector can create hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled, technology-based jobs spread around this country.

In the years ahead, investing in space could also be crucial to our national security. Satellites in space support around £300bn of our economy’s activity each year, yet we are currently nowhere near the world's big three space powers, the USA, Russia, and China in terms of numbers of operational satellites in orbit.

Just as the use of Huawei technology in the 5G network has prompted security concerns, our reliance on foreign-owned satellites could yet pose a major risk to UK security

The danger of being so far behind the leaders in the global space race is that the UK could end up being critically dependent on infrastructure provided by a hostile nation. Just as the use of Huawei technology in the 5G network has prompted security concerns, our reliance on foreign-owned satellites could yet pose a major risk to UK security.

To combat this threat and deliver the ambitious national space strategy that the Prime Minister has called for, we now need the right machinery in central government. To that end, the fact that things are moving with the National Space Council, announced last year, is good news. I would also like to see a dedicated space minister and there is a strong case for new cross-government space delivery capability, accountable to the National Space Council, to ensure that the space sector can achieve its growth potential.

The reality is that without action and ongoing investment, the UK could permanently fall behind both “tier one” and “tier two” space fairing nations, with catastrophic results for our economy and our security.

Thankfully, the government is showing every sign of refusing to let that happen.

Undoubtedly there is still more we need to elevate our position in the space race, but work is now under way. Hopefully, we are just at the start of the UK’s space journey and not the end. By building on what we have seen since the Queens Speech, the UK can still be a modern space power.

 

David Morris is the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

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