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Space and the technologies that make it possible are an incredible asset to the UK. Though we have made major and promising strides in space technology, there is much more we can be doing – practically and attitudinally – to access the mind-bending potential of this natural resource, particularly in terms of strengthening our position as a global humanitarian leader, protecting our environment, boosting our economy, and guaranteeing our national security.

Despite the Government’s decision to cut the target for overseas aid spending from 0.7% of Gross National Income to 0.5% last year, we remain a world leader in overseas development and humanitarianism. Technology made possible by space offers the potential for us to maintain that position and increase our humanitarian presence globally, with satellite technology holding incredible promise to deal with humanitarian emergencies. 

For example, the use of radar and optical satellites have become best practice not only for the safe collection of information, but also for achieving an enhanced situational awareness for analysis and research into political instability, the mass displacement of people, and human rights abuses. Indeed, it was thanks to the use of satellite images that China’s abhorrent mistreatment of Uighur Muslims was unveiled to the world. The space arena therefore offers Britain the opportunity in a post-Brexit world to sustain, and enhance, its renowned status as a humanitarian leader.

The benefits offered by space in protecting our environment, perhaps the defining issue of our time, are also vast. The United Nations has recognised this, noting that space-based technologies, such as remotely sensed data, have enhanced our scientific understanding of water cycles, air quality, forests and other aspects of the natural environment. These surveying and monitoring tools provide valuable information on the state of ecosystems, which further facilitates positive environmental action, including conservation and sustainable resource management. 

Britain’s commitment to tackling climate change, epitomised by our hosting of last year’s COP26, and coupled with our ambitious environmental legislation, must be maintained, and space has a role to play in doing so.

Looking away from our humanitarian and environmental objectives to our national economic ones, space also offers the UK tremendous export opportunities. Following Brexit, our trade policy has since undergone its greatest shift since the 1970s, but more change is on the way as the UK’s space industry grows: worth £14.8 billion today, it is set to increase to £40 billion by 2030. Around a third of income generated by the UK’s space sector is derived from exports, with an estimated 237,000 British jobs supported by it. 

To take full advantage of the economic opportunities offered by space, the Government must enrich collaboration with space leaders, including Airbus and Lockheed Martin, to unlock opportunities linked to trade, jobs, and prosperity. The UK government’s acquisition of the satellite network, OneWeb in 2020, served as an important demonstration in realising the long-term economic benefits attached to space and collaboration. If, however, the UK is to capitalise completely on these benefits, we must go further and faster. 

To achieve that, the Government must also work to deepen its space relationships with like-minded countries such as Australia, France and the US, positioning our thriving space industry at its core of those efforts. In this way, space can form a key part of how the Government fulfils its post-Brexit mandate on trade. 

Finally, space is central to the technological evolution we are witnessing in the defence sector, and will be crucial to the integrity of Britain’s national security, as recognised by the Government. Airbus, the UK’s largest space company, is testament to this, sustaining secure communications through its Skynet 6 programme to the UK Armed Forces and its allies. Domestically, space also has a role to play in keeping the British public safe; preventing terrorism, among other threats, through our highly interconnected intelligence and surveillance systems. 

However, the UK is, relative to others, failing to invest consistently in military space capabilities, with a mere £1.4 billion committed over the next decade. We now risk rapidly falling behind in our capacity to develop new capabilities in line with ever-changing technology, threats, and competitors. But the current conflict in Ukraine, where space plays a key part, demonstrates how complacency is not an option. Ultimately, we must put our money where our mouth is, invest, and acknowledge the role space can play in safeguarding British security interests.

When one thinks of space, images that might immediately spring to mind include Apollo 11, aliens, and even Elon Musk. But space is much more than the playground of daring exploration, predatory lifeforms and eccentric billionaires. It is a tool that can transform and improve the lives of people in the UK and around the world, to make them safer and more prosperous. To realise this future, we must embrace the benefits of space and work to increase the investment and partnerships necessary to do so. Forget global Britain, to interstellar Britain and beyond!

Stefan is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Peter Laskowski]