Already this year there have been several developments in both the civilian and military realms of space which have warranted further discussion and careful analysis.

This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Rob Clark.

As a brief point of consideration, these have included the first satellite-enabled photographing of a black hole, the near-successful landing of the first commercial space craft by the Israelis, and the emergence of India as a true space power, confirming it as only the fourth state to possess anti-satellite capability with its successful ASAT test last month.

These three events highlight the current dichotomy between recent developments in space exploration between the civilian-industrial, and the military-strategic environments. Whilst civilian space programmes have focused on exploration, satellite imagery and navigation systems, the various military programmes have concentrated on space-debris and missile-launch detection, and anti-satellite capabilities. The rapid developments recently witnessed in anti-satellite capability emphasises how space must now be considered, from a defence perspective, as a new, multi-dimensional domain.

With this realisation that space ought now be given crucial consideration in military strategy, there needs to be a fundamental requirement for the UK to develop a coherent and succinct space programme, merging both the civil and military components, in order to shape future national interests; ones which will be largely determined in this new and evolving environment. Central to this approach is the support of key government ministers and stakeholders.

The current UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, spoke this week at the launch of Policy Exchange’s new Space Policy Unit, the first dedicated centre for the study of space by any UK think-tank.

Emphasising the speed at which current developments are taking place across space exploration, Mr Skidmore, as the Minister charged with space affairs, is central to the UK further developing both critical space infrastructure. In particular, developing new satellite technologies enabling higher resolution, real-time imagery, which provides crucial situational awareness in what is such an immense realm.

In order to best achieve this unified effort, the UK should consider setting up a space council, to develop exploration whilst simultaneously mitigating against potential future conflict. A council would allow the UK to safeguard its national interests, said Mr Skidmore, while a fundamental benefit to this joined-up approach would be the ability for every department to be aligned on these priorities.

The sense for pragmatism on this regard was echoed by Policy Exchange’s keynote speaker, US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Remarking how space has turned from a benign domain, into a contested one, Secretary Wilson emphasised the need to maintain defensive capabilities to protect our vital infrastructure, whilst ensuring that we are able to fight back in times of conflict.

Fortunately for the UK, the US is still the global leader in space; with a budget of $US 21.5billon in 2019, NASA dominates civilian exploration. The Indian Space Research Organisation has a budget of approximately $US 1.6billion, whilst the German Aerospace Centre and Italian Space Agency budgets of $US 2.6billion and $US 1.8 billion respectively (2016 figures) ensures strong leadership from across the UK’s allies.

This leaves the UK an opportunity in which to grow its space programme, joining international allies in ongoing developments. With a much lower budget however of slightly under $US 500million (2017/17), the UK Space Agency should seek additional government funding in order to meet both these requirements, and the UK government’s obligation to spend 2.4% GDP on research and development; an area in which London still maintains a leading global role.

Despite historic relations in early space exploration between the Royal Air Force and the USAF throughout the Cold War, centred around RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, amongst others, the UK has for too long been a net receiver of the US’ space programme. Now, with the formation of Policy Exchange’s Space Policy Unit headed by Gabriel Elefteriu, in addition to influential members of the government embracing the requirement for an increased British participation in space, the UK has an opportunity to help shape an environment increasingly pivotal to national interests.

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Martin
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Martin

I think describing India as a space power on the fact it blew up a satellite is a best naive and is potentially very dangerous. The Uk was in a position to do this in the 60’s if it wanted to, many countries could easily build an anti satellite capability if they wanted to, none do because blowing up satellites is irresponsible and dangerous, failed third world countries like India and China do this to show off and distract their population from the vast problems their government’s cause. The UK is racing ahead in satellite and now launcher development. This… Read more »

Mark
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Mark

Agreed to a point. A UK space industry needs nurturing at first to thrive not shed loads of money thrown at it but I’m not sure that will be on the cards anyway.

AgentB
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AgentB

“failed third world countries like India and China” – I don’t see how these two countries are “failed” when China is within the next 10-15 years is set to become worlds biggest economy, same with India projected to be 2-3 ranked economy. Yet these countries you’ve classed as failed? They have two of the biggest population in the world, higher middle classes and increasingly more billionaires than most of of the western world. Their government has now been showing leadership on the world stage both economically and militarily, combining leadership with vision, can you say the same about our country… Read more »

Chris H
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Chris H

@agentB – People like you who denigrate and run down our country and make comments like: ” We are the failed nation” seriously annoy me but I will temper my anger and offer a counter argument. * Firstly lets look at history. The USA only got to the moon courtesy of that Nazi war criminal Von Braun who, had he ever ventured to the UK, would have been arrested and charged with war crimes. And hopefully hung. * NASA exists as the facilitator to US Incorporated’s aerospace activities where private contractors are given fat military contracts and reap the commercial… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
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Daniele Mandelli

Chris….So pleased you’re back.

Well said and agree with all.

DaveyB
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DaveyB

The recent launch of an anti-satellite missile by India has highlighted how defenceless the majority of satellites are, especially those placed in low earth orbit. The debris caused by the Indian test caused the International Space Station to use up fuel to increase its orbit to miss the cloud. Imagine what would have happen to it as it flew through the cloud of debris. The skin panels are less than 5mm thick aluminium alloy, so it wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Our commercial satellite and rocket industry have had a exponential growth in the last five years and… Read more »

Cam
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Cam

Why can’t we design an unmanned craft that refuels satellites from say the international space station or just from space.

Martin
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Martin
Martin
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Martin

The issue with armoured satellites is that the debris is traveling at hypersonic speed some times more than 25 times the speed of sound. Even battleship armour won’t stop projectiles at those kind of speeds. The best if not only protection is probably large swarms of smaller satellites. Active protection systems won’t work at those kind of speeds and would likely add to the debris cloud.

keithdwat
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keithdwat

Now I am no expert in any of this but I do call myself an amateur astronomer I suppose, so here we go. The UK has had every opportunity in the past and present to expand its space interests, it even had its own proper space program in the 50s/60s. And today there are many exciting opportunities namely ‘Skylon’. This technology needs to be given the full go ahead and backing from the government and it needs to remain a UK project, we can’t sell this tech to the Americans at first opportunity to win a few small political points.… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
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Daniele Mandelli

Good post Keith, but what’s this 18 Squadron reforming? Where did you read that?

18 Squadron is a Chinook outfit, so curious which unit you’re refering to.

Do you have a link?

keithdwat
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keithdwat

I’m a complete idiot, I meant No.18 Group, but its actually No.11 Group, my mistake!

keithdwat
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keithdwat

Of course No.18 Group was ex Coastal Command.

Daniele Mandelli
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Daniele Mandelli

You’re nothing of the sort mate.

Yes, 11 Group. Renaming of the Existing A4 RAF ASCS force and adding cyber and space.

Bit of a deliberate headline grabber by MoD as Fylingdales already tracks space debris, satellites, and missiles, and the NADOC at High Wycombe has had a space role too for some time.

As you say though all positive steps having it all under one command.

David E Flandry
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David E Flandry

Agree Keith, the UK has lost several opportunities to become a space power but frittered it away, leaving France to dominate European space affairs.

Spyinthesky
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Spyinthesky

My memory might be a tad muzzy but wasn’t it Thatcher who decided that in both Space and Commercial Aircraft, Europe had no hope of competing with the US (the latter she certainly did) and thus withdrew official support or interest. Those decisions have cost us dear sadly, though hopefully in the former case going backwards to go forwards in a leaner and far more focused way, may have actually been fulfilled for once, though despite Government rather than because of it. Skylon and Sabre I think have been the real frustration because considering, after 25 years or so of… Read more »

Spyinthesky
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Spyinthesky

Reciculous when you think of it, we were a decade ahead of France in terms of rocket technology in the 60s, hey we were do damn good at it we even sold some of that rocket engine tech to the Americans back in the day though Yay we can still look at it in the Science Museum and celebrate our design brilliance while musing our inate political and management paralysis. Far too often while our technology has been superior the ability to develop, support and market it has been appalling. Constantly changing decisions hardly helps but typical in a 2… Read more »

Stephen Keable
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Stephen Keable

UK Space Agency

All of this sounds very interesting and I have a few ideas of my own. How do I get involved and /or get a job in the UK Space Industry and / or the Government department driving it e.g. the area run by Mr Skidmore?