The space domain has been coming into its own in recent years. Progress has been made and ambitions are high as governments and companies look at least ten years down the line to match the rapid pace of this evolving industry.

The UK has found its footing as a centre that supports possibilities in the final frontier: it has attracted private investment and is cultivating a collaborative innovation base.

Although the United States conducts around 60% of global space activity while Europe makes up only 10%, attendees of the Space-Comm Expo have been largely optimistic about the UK’s efforts so far. This optimism signals the country’s aim to break the statistical mould by standing out in its own right.

At least that was the consensus reached by attendees at the Space-Comm event held in Farnborough, UK between 7-8 June.

While the UK has been singled out as a success story that does not mean the path ahead will be smooth. Company respresentatives and government spokespeople still voiced their concerns for the future.

These range from overcoming congestion and debris; balancing sovereign capabilties and international collaboration; exploring where to devote investment that will enhance space-related operations and simply integrating space within government circles.

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Space and UK governance

One issue that comes with making the government aware of the space sector is what Dr Paul Bate at the UK Space Agency calls the “tyranny of a one year spending cycle.”

Space operators are sometimes constrained by short-term spending goals; committing to space means setting long-term goals as it takes a lot of time and money to create concepts and launch assets.

Director for Space at the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, Rebecca Evernden, emphasised the need for a clear, multi-year roadmap for space. To direct industry on what the government’s requirements might look like.

However, Evernden also pointed out that “we will have to prioritise that work and not address every capability immediately. What are the most pressing needs for the government? The idea is to engage far and wide” before the UK can affirm its space strategy.

This cautious but active search for government direction when it comes to space defence is worth emphasising. It is certainly something the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) should consider after the cyber strategy problems it encountered earlier this year.

In February, the Public Accounts Committee commented that the “MoD is not well set up to implement digital change at pace and scale” since the “Department does still not have a delivery plan which will allow it to track and measure its performance effectively.”

When discussing how space can support the armed forces, UK shadow secretary for the armed forces, Luke Pollard, noted his disatisfaction with the government’s current strategy.

“My theory is that the UK lacks a well defined roadmap. Meaning we are falling behind our global competitors in space,” Pollard asserted.

Pollard advocated that the UK ought to give space, as well as cyber, as much weight as we give to our obsession with “ships, tanks and planes.”

Balancing sovereignty and collaboration

Now that countries realise that space has become a global reality they have begun to confront key questions: should we invest in an autonomous space programme? At what point do we trade off collaboration for sovereignty?

In its Revolution Space report, published March this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) maintained that “countries and regions that will not secure their independent access to space and its autonomous use will become strategically dependent.”

ESA forecasts that the global space economy will reach €1trn ($1.07trn) before 2040, it has spurred Europe to “capture one third of this market in the future.”

While this argument for autonomy may be true, total space autonomy is a very ambitious and costly task; especiallly at a time when land, sea and air mobilisation is dominating strategies responding to the multi-polar climate today.

But all is not lost. The CEO for Space-Missions Ltd, Doug Liddle, offered a more sensible solution to the panel discussing Brexit as an obstacle that prevents the UK from fostering its space economy.

“My own personal view is that we should look to do something that is our own, but is complimentary ans uses different technologies,” Liddle advocated.

Providing a helping hand to the collective space efforts alongside our partners and allies – such as Galileo  and Copernicus programmes – by supporting schemes with British-conceived solutions “is a far more useful way of doing things,” Liddle argued.

This invalidates the sovereignty versus collaboration decision, it is not either/or as the vice president for national security systems at Northrop Grumman, Troy Brashear affirmed on a different panel. Brashear suggests “it is a spectrum” in which nations should find the right balance.

We actually “need multi nation capabilities as it make the enemy’s calculation harder to decide what to do,” Brashear added.

“A lot more interface”

Artificial intelligence (AI) –  the most infamous disruptor that effects almost every industry out there – goes hand in hand with space.

A UK government space adviser, David Morris, pointed out that the “UK has a part ot play in [AI] configuration globally.”

“Other countries are ahead of the race than the UK but we have a significant [advantage] in education, inventing, intellectual property rights and patents here.”

GlobalData intelligence suggests that the UK is becoming more assertive in its industrial policy because of this technological innovation, even investing taxpayers’ money into strategic industries (e.g. the London-based communications company, OneWeb).

With AI based algorithms, we can process an enormous amount of data and monitor space traffic. Integrating technologies into space-related operations will enable greater interface across our space networks.

Craig Miller, president of Viasat Systems, told Airforce Technology about its Viasat-3 constellation. Miller suggested that the three Viasat-3 satellites are part of a greater eco-system that communicates as a “system of systems”.

As AI develops in the next decade, the emerging technology will play a pivotal role in the autonomous monitoring of data, while providing global coverage anywhere and at any time.