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UK government sets out plan to ‘unleash’ nation’s space sector

28 Sep 2021 Michael Banks
satelllite in space
Joined up: the new space strategy brings together – for the first time – the UK government’s civil and defence space activities. (Courtesy: iStock/kotofeja)

The UK government has released a long-term vision for the country’s burgeoning space sector. The National Space Strategy includes several measures that it says will “unleash” the industry’s potential and brings together – for the first time – the UK government’s civil and defence space activities. Yet while the strategy includes many bold aims, some state that it is recycling “old ideas”.

The report, released yesterday, notes that the global space economy is projected to grow from an estimated £270bn in 2019 to £490bn by 2030. The space sector in the UK is worth over £16.4bn per year and employs more than 45 000 people. Next year, the UK aims to become the first country to launch a rocket into orbit from Europe and by 2030 hopes to be a leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe.

The strategy notes that while commercial space stations are being planned and built – and space-tourism operators are taking their first customers into orbit – advances in space are also a threat to information networks. “Space is changing,” the report notes, “the UK must respond”. The strategy therefore brings together science and technology, defence, regulation and diplomacy into what it calls a single “bold national vision”.

Cash will be the deal breaker

Chris Newman

The document includes a package of measures to “unlock growth in the UK space sector”. They include allowing space businesses to access private finance through “space-oriented venture capital funds”; maintaining the UK’s role in the European Space Agency while building new relationships with other countries; as well as collaborating on the NASA-led Artemis programme to return humans to the Moon.

The strategy also commits to the delivery of the UK’s first Defence Space Portfolio, which will see the government investing an additional £1.4bn – above the £5bn already committed to enhance the military’s satellite communications.

Chris Newman, a professor of space law at Northumbria Univeristy, claims that the new UK strategy is “more of a restatement of existing ideas rather than a new strategic direction”. He adds, however, that the proposal is “much more integrated in terms of defence and civilian than anything we’ve seen previously”. Newman says that while it is “nice to see mention of things like sustainability and applications of space data to climate change, cash will be the deal breaker.”

Solar power

Alongside the space strategy, meanwhile, the UK government has released a feasibility study into Space Based Solar Power (SBSP). The technique would involve placing satellites – adorned with photovoltaic panels – into geo-stationary orbit. The solar energy captured by the panels would then be beamed to a fixed point on Earth via radio waves.

The feasibility study, which examined two SBSP concepts — the US-led SPS Alpha and the UK-led CASSIOPeiA — states that the engineering challenges for SBSP could be overcome to allow enrolment of the technology by the 2050s to meet “Net Zero” emissions pledges.

The report states that a thorough cost and economic analysis should now be undertaken. The UK government has also stated that future funding will be made available for SBSP technologies through the £1bn Net Zero Innovation Portfolio.

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