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- June 8th, 2021 Posted in News

UKspace welcomes the publication of the “Platform for Growth” report, examining the evidence for satellite servicing, assembly and manufacturing in space. UKspace also welcomes the pro-active call from the UK Space Agency for Phase 0/A studies on the feasibility of a national space debris removal mission to support UK policy on space sustainability. UKspace endorses the six recommendations in the report as an important first step towards a sustainable in-orbit economy. Nevertheless, UKspace member companies believe that work to drive innovation in this new space domain should proceed further and faster than implied by the report alone. The In-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (IOSM) domain embraces growth topics, as well as space sustainability. Therefore, this response highlights broader interests, aiming to increase the conversation between silos and to build support for IOSM as a cross-cutting topic underpinning the National Space Strategy.

UKspace has compared the report’s recommendations against three key objectives previously identified by its IOSM Committee:

  1. Develop and deliver a joint industry-government ambitious roadmap and establish a long-range funding programme aligned with the UK government’s deep-horizon view, ensuring that the UK sits at the vanguard of commercial space operations.
  2. Secure UK leadership in IOSM by taking rapid and decisive steps in ground-based and in-orbit demonstration missions, accelerating progress towards in-space assembly and manufacture.
  3. Demonstrate UK commitment to policy leadership for IOSM on the world stage: driving regulatory changes and policy advancements in international fora, and implementing the first multi-target mission to remove two significant pieces of UK legacy debris by 2025.

The multi-target Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission is being started through the new Phase 0/A studies. UKspace endorses the ambitous mission goals and notes that a future budget needs to be commensurate with the mission scope that the UK Space Agency would select after the study phase.

UKspace notes that the “Platform for Growth” study recommendations place the other objectives in a 2-5 year timeframe, although there is already evidence of other countries developing their own capabilities, regulations and policies in this field. Full adoption of the study recommendations sooner is therefore encouraged, in order to accelerate the UK’s ambitions to become a pioneer in commercial IOSM. Current momentum must be maintained by avoiding uncertainties around future budget cycles that could curb ambitious space programmes and by creating an anticipatory regulatory framework through cross-Governmental and international engagement (particularly in relation to licensing IOSM missions which may require consent from other countries).

The Space Growth Partnership report “Prosperity from Space” (2018) identified the IOSM market as one of the key growth areas of the UK space industry. Yet there have been only a few IOSM initiatives by the UK, mostly limited to debris removal. The bigger prize is innovation in technologies and skills for servicing, assembly and manufacture that will underpin a future in-orbit economy and stimulate economic growth on the ground. The prize is there for the UK to take by building on the common functional and technical needs between ADR and the rest of IOSM. Investing in common technologies applicable to the widest scope of business in IOSM will yield the largest economic return to the UK. Two examples (among several) of critical technologies required to enable IOSM activities from the UK are mechanical and electronic systems for rendezvous and alternative green propulsive technologies to replace hydrazine and MON/MMH.

Therefore, UKspace encourages the UK Space Agency and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to move forward at pace with all of the recommendations in the “Platform for Growth” report for realising the UK’s ambitious space programmes, highlighting:

  • UKspace recommends bringing forward planning activities relating to the “Space Bench” in order to fully complement the ADR mission. “Space Bench” is the report’s temporary name for a new UK-owned robotic flying laboratory delivering real-world development and innovation of in-space servicing, assembly and manufacture. The robotic IOSM mission will take longer to fully realise than the ADR mission and therefore its Phase 0/A should be up and running by the start of FY 2022, to maximise the period of overlap; these two missions should not be seen as sequential. Like the ADR mission, the future budget needs to match an ambitious mission scope. The activities brought forward would also include partnerships with academia to support and accelerate such missions via early investment in on-ground development and test facilities to maximise programme readiness.
  • UKspace believes that the applicable regulatory environment must be clarified without delay. Without a market-enabling regulatory vision, there will be difficulties for UK companies in taking full advantage and a reluctance on the part of private investors to engage with companies, particularly SMEs, seeking to exploit UK originated technologies and capabilities.
  • Deepening the UK skills base within industry, academia and regulatory bodies will create jobs, attract inward investment and deliver innovative products, services and effective policy initiatives. Alongside creating new commercial opportunities for established UK companies, such investment will unleash opportunities for UK start-ups and SMEs to scale up and export to other countries keen to enter this nascent market. These new skills and technical capabilities will also find applications outside of the space sector, bringing new spin-out / spin-in opportunities. Importantly, it will strengthen the UK’s influence over the international norms and rules governing the sustainable commercial exploitation of space.

IOSM (or “Factory in Space”) is one of five bold ideas identified by UKspace that can underpin the development of a new National Space Strategy. When scaled up and applied commercially, the IOSM capabilities to be developed will offer new opportunities for each of today’s space domains that will deliver massive benefits and revenues. Examples include ubiquitous connectivity via novel high-performance telecoms satellites with very large antenna arrays; science and observation missions that are bigger than can be launched on a single rocket; logistics, maintenance and transfer services that support human spaceflight and robotic exploration; manufacture of high-value items in microgravity for use back on Earth; and in the longer term, potentially lunar and asteroid resource utilisation and space-based solar power stations as a necessary element of net-zero carbon for the energy sector. These future-facing concepts will require new business models, supply chains and manufacturing capabilities. They will play against strategic geopolitical constraints such as dependence on launch capability, security concerns around dual-use technologies, and UK sovereignty needs, as well as industry access to global markets.

Action is therefore needed now on all fronts across a new IOSM domain. The UK can champion these efforts via thought leadership and by supporting research, innovation and technology transfer in collaboration with enabling sectors like AI, robotics and advanced manufacturing. Partnership opportunities will result in the co-creation of innovative commercial products and services that will accelerate the UK space sector’s development, contribute to growth in the wider economy and assure a competitive advantage to the UK.