Why the UK needs to develop space relations

Phil Mackereth, project lead at Exobotics, explains how space partnerships are the way for the UK to thrive in space
Phil Mackereth

The past few years have seen a remarkable acceleration of activity in the global space industry. Driving this are significant reductions in cost to access space, and new technological drivers from advanced telecommunications systems such as SpaceX’s Starlink, to new earth observations (EO) for climate research. Many nations are seeking to expand their space presence, and whereas space was once viewed as the domain of the technological superpowers and large corporations, many smaller private companies are now leading the way in innovation.

As a result, nations worldwide including the UK are acknowledging the significance of international space partnerships as crucial to promoting economic growth and innovation. Developing these relationships is essential to Britain's ambition of becoming a leading Science and Technology superpower by 2030.

The UK government recently introduced the International Bilateral Fund (IBF) which aims to support industry, research, and academic organisations in collaborating with international partners on cutting-edge projects. Priority areas include launch, Earth Observations, and sustainability. The fund will provide up to £20 million in total, with further funding to be introduced over the next two years.

The UK Space Agency will manage this funding of up to 30 projects, in collaboration with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), with over £1.5 million available for each project across two phases. Initiatives such as this are also a key part of the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology's (DSIT) £370m investment plan to establish the UK as a leading global science and technology powerhouse by 2030.

Establishing a strong national space sector has the potential to create a powerhouse of highly skilled job opportunities in the UK. With the space industry continuously growing and offering opportunities for technological advancement, the workforce can benefit from upskilling and expanding their expertise into new markets created by the industry, such as precision manufacturing or software systems. Creating more highly skilled jobs with the addition of support roles such as communication teams will reduce unemployment and boost the UK’s economy. This will also support the government's 'levelling-up' agenda, bringing growth to areas of the UK beyond south east England.

Creating new partnerships will result in the formation of new teams and relationships to drive progress within the space sector. However, to remain at the forefront, substantial investments in research and development of new space technology will be required. The IBF’s investment will leverage support to new research centres at British universities, bolstering research projects which often span over several years and in turn offer benefits such as cross-disciplinary collaboration and the fostering of broader relationships between different countries.

The space industry is a hotbed of innovation, where cutting-edge technologies are developed and tested. By working with other space-faring nations, the UK can gain access to new technologies, knowledge, and best practices, and bring them back to the UK to boost innovation and competitiveness. Collaboration also enables the sharing of costs and risks, which can help reduce the financial burden on individual nations and accelerate the development of new technologies.

Historically, space activities have been dominated by a few countries, making it challenging for new entrants to gain access to space. However, this is changing rapidly. Space technology is becoming more accessible and affordable, and more countries are entering the space race. Developing international space relations will help the UK to collaborate with emerging space powers and help them to overcome technological and regulatory barriers to entry. Such cooperation can also help promote the peaceful use of space and establish a global framework for managing space activities.

The scope of the space industry extends beyond just rockets and satellites, encompassing a vast range of technologies such as telecommunications, navigation, optics, weather prediction, and more. Research has shown that a strong national space sector leads to substantial spin-off benefits to the wider society. These are not only the direct benefits such as strengthened economy or improved telecoms, but for example include application of new technological advances in the space sector to problems in other fields such as medicine. The new space sector is also well placed to provide new diverse workplaces representing a wide societal demographic, reducing the historic imbalances in the sector.

Forging international space partnerships can create connections among various sectors, facilitating breakthroughs and assisting industries such as energy, transportation, and agriculture to optimise their activities and increase efficiency.

The UK has already made significant strides in developing international space relations, such as the collaboration with the European Space Agency and the formation of a National Space Council. Through continued investment, the UK has the potential to further leverage its space heritage and solidify its position as a leading global player in space science and technology.

Written by
Phil Mackereth