Space, or certainly the part of it we occupy, seems to be becoming an overpopulated place, and an increasing source of disputes. In November 2021, an inactive Russian satellite was struck by a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, this was monitored by the UK’s Space Operations Centre due to the fragmentation caused by it and the threat posed to other satellites. A month later, the Chinese government complained to the UN after its space station had nearly collided with one of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, although Musk rejected the claim that his Starlink project was ‘taking up too much space’.
Given the modern dependence upon satellite communications for a vast number of purposes, the interest and involvement of governments is inevitable and recent events highlight the direction that this will persist. The ability to both launch satellites and destroy them could be destined to become the critical power a state possesses. The involvement of Russia, China, and the US can be taken for granted, Europe has also had a significant role too, with Arianespace launches from its spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. However, the emergence of companies like Space X along with a proliferation of other small players launching smaller satellites has been a cause for concern, especially in Europe, which perceive this as a political threat to the Arianespace project.
The place of the UK within this could easily be seen as semi-detached. Whilst it did have a part in the European ‘Galileo’ project, the decision to leave the EU has barred it from any further involvement due to security concerns over the involvement of a non-member state. Aside from a role in satellite development, this lack of involvement in space-related projects has been noted by the government, and the potentially major implications of this may rekindle an involvement in space rocketry that had ceased many years ago. The largely forgotten British involvement in space projects could be blamed upon the fact that the launching system used in the past was located on the other side of the globe at the Woomera Prohibited Area in Australia. It's one successful, but largely forgotten, launch was a satellite called ‘Prospero’, placed in low orbit in 1971. The Black Arrow system used was a re-use of technology developed for the Black Knight and Blue Steel missile systems developed in the 1950s. After the Prospero launch in 1971, the Black Arrow system was cancelled, and the Woomera facilities were dismantled.
With change appearing to be on the horizon, parallels can be drawn to the 1950s project to develop the ‘Blue Streak’ ballistic missile which had a test facility at Spadeadam in Cumbria, although the present intentions appear to be for more peaceful purposes. In September 2021 the government released its ‘National Space Strategy’, which outlined intentions to build a ‘space economy’ in the UK, helping it to grow as a space nation on a global level. Within this, a plan was laid out on how to achieve this. This included using the government to encourage the space sector to expand, such as through access to venture capital funds, collaborating on an international basis to achieve goals, expanding research opportunities, as well as growing space capabilities to improve civil and defence functions. The UK Space Agency has outlined seven locations for launch, mostly in Scotland, one in Wales, and one in England.
This expansion in space capabilities also addresses the issue of ‘making space safer’. The UK government highlighted the estimated 130 million pieces of debris now in orbit alongside 3,000 working satellites, and as highlighted by the Russian ASAT test, a great amount of debris can result from one collision. To combat this, in July 2021 the government, through the UK Space Agency, allowed organisations to bid for part of a £1.2 million fund with proposals on how to address issues associated with diminishing the risks of collisions in space. This expansion forms, as also addressed in the ‘National Space Strategy’, a £16 billion part of the UK economy each year. The potential growth parallels that on an international scale too. The global space economy is projected to grow from £270 billion in 2019 to £490 billion by 2030. The global factors appear to largely be the motivation for these proposed developments. Given that the proposals come after Britain’s exit from the EU, one can assume there is a political dimension to the plan. The British ‘National SpaceStrategy’ follows the new EU space programme, EUSPA. Much like British plans, this seeks to improve satellite navigation, Earth observation, space situational awareness, and secure communications. The British efforts today in improving space capabilities hold many parallels with the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Second World War. Here, the motivation was that Britain needed to maintain an important role in international affairs. Prime Minister from 1945-50, Clement Attlee admitted that “it had become essential…we had to hold up our position vis-à-vis the Americans”. In the National Space Strategy, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Business both acknowledge the first Space Race between the US and the USSR, but its modern equivalent is a more global affair due to the expansion of ‘superpower’ nations.
The new ‘spaceports’ in Britain are being developed. In June 2021, Spaceport Cornwall signed an agreement with the American ‘Sierra Nevada Corporation’. The company seeks to make spaceflight and travel “globally accessible”, and the deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency described the agreement as “helping Spaceport Cornwall realise their ambitions and support the growth of the UK spaceflight industry”. Whilst commercial space travel does form a part of recent developments in the industry, the military considerations cannot be overlooked either. The Russian ASAT test in November 2021 is a reminder that there is great potential for the use of satellites for potentially less benevolent purposes, and to pursue strategic military purposes generally, and this too is something that will be addressed by the expansion of the UK space industry.
Written by Frances Rigby