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Britain Is Reaching for the Stars – A Renewed Commitment to the Global Space Race

An astronaut's view of Great Britain

The global space race has been heating up for some time now. The U.S now has its own Space Force, and private-public partnerships are advancing space mission efforts. Recently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully sent two astronauts to the International Space System without a flaw. Likewise, numerous other countries are investing heavily in their own space programs. This naturally includes the European Space Agency and Russia, but it also involves other nations like India, China and Japan. Now, you can add a British space program to that list.

A number of recent developments have caused the United Kingdom to rethink its current space exploration efforts. With advances in satellite technologies and the highly anticipated Internet-of-Things (IoT), the UK doesn’t want to be left behind. This has been emphasized with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union as of late. Despite a degree of neglect for the British space program for a number of years, a renewed interest now exists. And it’s quite likely that Britain will soon be a respected competitor in the global space race.

“[Brexit has provided] a real stimulus to get us to think about what we actually need as a country in space.” – Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the U.K. Space Agency

Brexit – A Catalyst for the British Space Program

Britain’s decision to pull out of the European Union this summer was a major one. What Brexit will mean for both Britain and the EU remains to be seen. But one thing is now clear. Britain will not be participating in the European Space Agency’s Galileo system. The Galileo system is a planned constellation of satellites that will provide a variety of communication services. From observation tracking to Internet connectivity, Galileo will facilitate the IoT among other developments. If not part of this global space race pursuit, Britain could be left out in the cold.

A global view of Great Britain
The global space race has another contender – and this one likes fish and chips.

Understanding this, Brexit has been a major accelerator of the British space program. Though not extensive in terms of numbers, the UK has increased its space program budget by 10 percent. In addition, the UK government has backed specific British companies who have expertise in this area. OneWeb, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, was bailed out by the British space program. As a manufacturer of low-orbit, small satellite constellation networks, OneWeb offers the UK a potential advantage. Success in this area would immediately place them back in the global space race.

“The small-satellite approach now means we are not going to spend our entire national budget on our space program.” – Martin Sweeting, Founder and Executive Chairman, Surrey Satellite Technology

Technological Advances Offer Opportunity

In terms of the global space race, one thing is definitely working in Britain’s favor. Satellite technologies continue to advance making it easier for anyone to compete. Today’s satellites are about the size of a shoebox and cost less than $1 million in price. This has not only allowed efforts like those of the British space program to be catch up to other space systems. But it has also made networks of satellites, called constellations, feasible. These constellations are what allows the IoT to come to life. And this is an essential element in the pursuit of self-driving cars, innovative robotics, and other advances.

Smaller and cheaper satellites reduce the barriers of entry for the British space program into the global space race. But at the same time, these satellites do not last as long and must be continually replaced. This means that Britain must develop its own structures to launch these satellites into orbit. No longer a partner in the European Space Agency’s or NASA’s space programs, Britain must look elsewhere. This has been yet another strong incentive for investing in its own British space program.

“Smaller rockets like this, which could be launched from sites here in Britain, could be the key to unlocking that market. The UK has a strategic aim to secure 10% of the worldwide space industry by 2030.” – Patrick Harkness, James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow

Relying on Local Talent

In its efforts to development its own satellite launch structures, the British space program has some ideas. The first is to develop a series of small spaceports, which were previously airports. The UK has already begun construction of such a spaceport near Cornwall, whose major tenant will be Virgin Orbit. Virgin’s Cosmic Girl, a modified 747, plans to launch small satellites into low orbit in a much more efficient way. Not only will it take off and land similar to a normal plane, but it will also do so inexpensively. Each aircraft can carry up to 700 pounds of payload and cost less than $12 million per trip. This is much less than standard rocket missions.

This is not the only new development in satellite launches for the British space program. The Defense and Security Accelerator, DASA, in Britain is developing a solid propellant fuel tube rocket for this purpose. The fuel tube would be completely vaporized and used, tank and all, before the rocket ever reaches orbit. The only thing left by the time it left the earth’s stratosphere would be the actual payload. Known as hybrid autophage rockets, this would allow smaller transport missions carrying only a few satellites. Similarly, this would reduce costs dramatically while also improving launch frequency.

The Global Space Race Is Heating Up

Elon Musk has already had success with multiple space missions with SpaceX. In the near future, Musk plans to make his StarLink constellation system a reality. Likewise, Jeff Bezos is hard at work with his Blue Horizons project. And many other similar pursuits are occurring through the European Space Agency and other national space programs. Without question, the British space program has some catching up to do. But advances in technology have offers opportunities to do just that. It has already made impressive progress already. Thus, it’s quite probable the British space program will be a major player in the space economy of the future.


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