Why is space so important in 2020?

  • Olivier Usher

    Olivier Usher

    Lead, Research and Impact

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We are busy right now: so many urgent problems. The coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has brought. The imminent severing of decades-old trading arrangements with our nearest neighbours. And in the background the slow drumbeat of escalating ecological calamity.

Why on earth should we care about space?

Spaceflight, from its earliest days, was tied up in military interests and cold war politics. From the V2 missiles the Nazis rained down on London, to Sputnik and the Apollo programme, the pioneering moments in the history of space exploration were tied to flag waving – and to more or less veiled threats to kill. (Sputnik was launched, let’s not forget, on a modified nuclear missile.)

And that spirit is still here today – rockets as a national pride rendered in titanium and carbon fibre. 

A distraction, or worse, in a moment of crisis, you could argue. Certainly not something to be focusing on now.

I think this view is wrong.

For while it’s true that space has always been about militaristic flag waving, it’s also always been about civilian uses. 

As I wrote a few years ago, the first privately-built spacecraft dates back to 1961; satellite TV to 1965 – civilian uses of space date back to the very earliest days of the space programme. 

And today, the overwhelming majority of the global space economy is private, not public. These are services that people are willing to pay for – to track the weather, to map cities, to transmit data.

An artist's depiction of a mirror array collecting the sunlight and focuses it on the satellite in closest proximity, which then converts it in to energy. The satellite then transmits that energy to a second satellite (bottom right) which receives it. A challenge prize could refine the technology for reliably beaming the power.

The satellites far above our heads, tiny specks you see moving across the sky against the firmament on a dark night, are part of our critical infrastructure. Just as roads support almost every aspect of our government and economy, space-based services now enable sectors as diverse as entertainment, agriculture and construction.

Britain has done nicely out of this – we’ve carved out profitable niches in the space industry, including in services (like Inmarsat communications or Sky Television) and in satellite construction. 

But the sector is facing change. A shift to more, smaller satellites (like Elon Musk’s Starlink communications system), and a more diverse range of companies launching them into space too.

Opportunities for the UK

As part of this shift, Nesta Challenges advised on a European Commission challenge prize to develop microlaunchers. These are small rockets capable of launching small satellites at low cost, without having to piggyback on major launches, which aren’t always available at the time that’s needed, or aiming at the right orbit. The prize is expected to be awarded in late 2021.

There’s a threat and an opportunity in this disruption. If the UK sits on its laurels, the successful industry we have could be at risk. But if we make smart decisions and investments, we could build on this success and seize the opportunities this market disruption brings.

With miniaturisation, microlaunchers and advances in robotic and computer technology, there are suddenly new opportunities to develop spacecraft design. These in turn could enable more, better or cheaper services – with wide benefits across all sectors.

Some ideas we’re interested in exploring for possible challenge prize initiatives include:

We’ve seen a revolution in spacecraft design – from the chunky spacecraft of the past to tiny satellites today. (CubeSats are just 10cm across.) But miniaturising spacecraft propulsion hasn’t followed – and so, often, these small satellites can’t manoeuvre and change position once they’re in orbit. A prize could reward innovators who develop tiny engines to move these tiny spacecraft around.

Manufacturing in microgravity has been demonstrated on the International Space Station – it allows materials (such as alloys) to be produced in orbit which can’t be produced in normal Earth gravity. A prize could incentivise innovators to find a way of economically demonstrating production in orbit and – crucially – safely and legally returning their product to Earth.

Advances in robotics mean it should be possible to carry out final assembly of satellites in orbit – meaning they could be launched in parts, or folded up, taking less space on board the launcher. A prize could reward innovators who demonstrate technology to attach and connect solar panels in orbit.

A promising longer-term use of satellites could be capturing solar power in space and beaming it to Earth. A prize could unlock one of the critical steps on the way to this – by incentivising innovators to create technology to beam power between satellites.

With all the extra use of space, the risk of space junk rises each year. A prize could incentivise new ways to safely remove objects of space debris from orbits where they put satellites at risk.

The space sector is dominated by private industry, but it’s not a classic free market either. 

Strict export controls on technology (to avoid military secrets being exported), protectionist politics and subsidies for national champions make the sector a complex one to navigate, and a difficult one to play in without some degree of government support. 

An interventionist industrial policy – and the judicious use of challenge prizes – could be the difference between the UK’s vibrant space sector thriving or declining.

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