Tuesday 5 October 2021 6:00 am

Time to fly: our space highways are just as important for security as those on the ground

Richard Payne is the Communications Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy

Much has been said about the poor timing of Government announcements, and the launch of the National Space Strategy last week was no exception. As Britain sent the first satellites from European soil in 2022 the country was grappling with fuel shortages and fears of a “winter of discontent”. However, the criticism is little in comparison to Boris Johnson’s typically boisterous preambles.

The reality is simple: there’s no time to waste in placing the UK on a path to success and security in space. As George Freeman, Minister for Science, Innovation and Technology, said at the opening of the Space Conference, “most citizens of this country, although they may not know it, rely on space infrastructure every day.” Estimates in the NSS suggest that an outage or disruption to our access to positioning, timing and navigation systems based in orbit could cost up to £1.7 billion a day. 

In addition to the value it already provides, the space sector is booming – estimated to reach £490bn a year by 2030, up from £270bn in 2019. It currently generates £16.4bn a year for the UK economy, supports more than 45,000 jobs, and satellites underpin £360 billion a year of global economic activity. A coherent strategy now puts us in a good position to capitalise on this growth and bring dividends for the space sector. Let us not forget that because of the Apollo program, we now have miniature computers in our pockets and MRI scanners in our hospitals; derivative technologies could prove a lucrative secondary market.

Of the nearly 500 satellites launched in 2019, 389 were classified as small satellites – the type that the government wants the UK to begin launching in 2022. We have several world-leading companies that range from providing services using space infrastructure to building entire satellites that gather valuable scientific and commercial data. Rebecca Evernden, Director for Space at BEIS, stated, “innovation is at the core of what we are going to try and do in this sector.” The UK has a long track record of innovation to draw from.

As the director of space at the Ministry of Defence said, we now exist in a “world where we are in constant competition.” The number of satellites in orbit is increasing year on year as smaller, commercial satellites are being launched by SpaceX and OneWeb. Congested and contested are two words we hear a lot from officials. In the same way you’d expect risks from a packed road, an overcrowded satellite highway also poses concerns for security and safety – as well as the potential for hostile action.

It is vital that efforts be made to increase our resilience against the many threats and hazards posed to space infrastructure. The NSS lays out a framework to boost investment in the UK’s space sector by increasing access to funding and support whilst securing critical national infrastructure upon which so much economic activity now depends. 

The UK has been a leading voice in pushing for UN-backed norms for behaviour in space. Gina Galasso, Managing Director of Aerospace Corporation, argued that the UK could leverage this position into playing a major role in the verification of compliance with these norms, which would go a long way to building trust between countries and companies operating in space.

So while the optics of announcing anything about the space sector might appear poor when people are queuing to fill up their cars down here on Earth, the NSS has arrived exactly when it needs to. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.