The UK’s first National Space Strategy, launched last week, aims to turn the country into a truly global space power. It has five ambitious goals: growing the space economy, promoting Global Britain, supporting research and innovation, defending national interests, and using space to tackle major challenges like climate change. Yet despite the lofty rhetoric, the strategy accepts the UK’s limited resources and wisely prioritises improvements to public services here on Earth.
Delivering better local public services
This more pragmatic approach is driven by the acknowledgement, outlined in the fifth goal, that investment in space should deliver real and positive outcomes for Britons on the ground. This includes addressing “global challenges” such as climate change and biodiversity loss, but also delivering better public services here in the UK. However, it admits there is currently limited awareness among public sector buyers about the potential uses and benefits of space-based technologies, especially for local providers such as NHS trusts and councils.
As a result, the Strategy advocates further developing existing use cases trialled over recent years so they can be more widely embraced by other local public sector organisations. Though not explicitly mentioned in the Strategy, this will likely build off a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) aimed at developing a place-based response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes using satellite-guided drones to deliver medical supplies and samples to and from remote communities, using a mix of satellite and terrestrial data to help local authorities identify vulnerable communities that may need targeted support, and using earth observation data to detect problems in critical infrastructure.
The Strategy also advocates using space-based technologies to modernise the UK’s transport system. However, some of the use cases specifically outlined – such as the T-Cabs project, to build and trial a fleet of self-driving shuttles, or GPS enabled geofencing solutions – remain in their nascent stages, so initial funding is likely to be targeted more towards the transportation of information by integrating satellite communications into the UK’s consumer telecommunications infrastructure.
UK National Space Strategy: making a success of OneWeb
Considering that digital connectivity remains high on the UK space agenda, the National Space Strategy makes surprisingly little mention of OneWeb. After purchasing a significant minority stake in the satellite broadband provider late last year, to the chagrin of many within Whitehall, there is no way the UK government can afford not to leverage OneWeb as part of its wider plans for levelling up, specifically when it comes to extending connectivity to hard-to-reach areas.
This goal was at the heart of a recent memorandum of understanding between OneWeb and BT, which outlined how satellite technology could improve capacity, mobile resilience, backhaul and coverage across the nation. Further down the line, it seems likely OneWeb could become a piece in the Government’s wider £5bn Project Gigabit scheme aimed at connecting homes, businesses and local public services via satellite, where fibre or 5G is not cost-effective.
It is also expected OneWeb will help deliver space-based connectivity services beyond the UK for BT’s global customers, similar to arrangements with other telcos across the globe, including AT&T in the US and Northwestel in Canada. While not a formal agreement, it is far from an outlandish idea. OneWeb has been in a position to begin planning services above 50 degrees latitude since July and aims to have a working service in place here by the end of 2021, ahead of a full global roll-out in 2022.
Unleashing innovation and cooperation
Beyond connectivity, the Strategy also argues government must do more to help develop the wider technologies and infrastructure needed to support future economic development, via co-funding for business, industry, academia, and other research organisations. However, it makes no mention of any new funding pots, so keep an eye on the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review for details.
What is also acknowledged is that more must be done to improve how space-based products and services are procured. This could mean more routes to market similar to an upcoming Dynamic Purchasing System – which enables new suppliers to be included at any time, unlike traditional framework agreements – focusing on space-enabled technologies and geospatial services for use by the public sector.
On top of focusing on innovation at home, the Strategy recommits the UK to further collaboration with Europe, though largely through future programmes led by the ESA. The two exceptions remain Horizon Europe, the latest version of the EU’s research and innovation fund, and Copernicus, its Earth observation programme, access to which was principally agreed as part of the UK-EU trade deal. While this is great news for UK businesses, universities and researchers, future access will depend upon good relations between London and Brussels. Worryingly for the former, access to Horizon Europe could still be jeopardised due to ongoing tensions around the Northern Irish border, something alluded to recently by EU research commissioner Maryia Gabriel.
One European scheme that is conspicuous in its absence from the Strategy, though, is Galileo, the EU-funded global navigation system from which the UK was unceremoniously barred from fully participating as part of the Brexit deal. This silence is hardly surprising given the realisation that developing a fully domestic alternative is simply too expensive to justify. Current government thinking is focused on developing a less ambitious, but more practical and cost-effective alternative. This could still involve using future OneWeb satellites in some way, though exactly how these would be repurposed to provide position, navigation and timing services is yet to be specified. If this issue can be solved, though, it would provide additional resilience for the UK’s armed forces now that the secure aspects of Galileo are off the table.
Despite nods to ‘Galactic Britain’, a careful reading of the UK National Space Strategy shows post-Brexit Britain is increasingly aware of what it can, and cannot, achieve with its comparatively limited investment in space. This helps explain why the previous key aim of capturing 10% of the global space economy by 2030 has been dropped, a goal that was always essentially meaningless due to the challenges of working out what the ‘space economy’ encompasses. Market share aside, if the Strategy is to succeed, ultimately it must help deliver better public services for citizens on the ground.