UKspace President, Will Whitehorn, explains why he is so optimistic about the growing range of satellite launch facilities and satellite technologies in providing major benefits that address healthcare, food poverty, economic development, population growth and scientific innovation.
Last month, Virgin Orbit achieved something many thought impossible. It succeeded in putting its first satellites into space. In the weeks before that, SpaceX successfully launched a batch of its Starlink satellites into space.
In doing so, the entrepreneurs Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk proved that they can launch spacecraft easily, and in the case of Virgin Orbit, from anywhere in the world (subject to local licences).
Furthermore, both companies are helping bring down the cost of space launch by up to 70 per cent, something I expect Lockheed Martin should well be able to do in Shetland through its planned UK launch operations. Additionally, Orbex and Skyrora are leading the charge to launch from new spaceports in Scotland. It is great to see the UK with the chance to take a lead in the small satellite launch market.
This accomplishment represents the opening of a new gateway to space and is hugely significant for the small satellite world. Why? Firstly, it means we will be able to launch satellites responsively. For the UK, this event promises sovereign launch capacity very soon. Secondly, both Virgin Orbit and SpaceX are bringing down the cost of space launch for satellites, substantially reducing the barriers to entry. Put simply, it brings our ability to industrialise space one step closer.
Why does that matter? Should we be focusing on what’s going on above our heads when we’re struggling to confront issues far closer to home?
If anything, the pandemic demonstrated just how dependent we’ve become on space: data beamed from satellite to hospital is critical to the ongoing fight against Covid-19 and our rapid transition to remote working has saved great swathes of the economy. But it’s also highlighted the need for ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity and it’s encouraging to see British companies such as Avanti and OneWeb, offering remote and rural broadband. Their work will hugely benefit regions unable to enjoy the communications revolution that so many have been to privy to – thereby helping revitalise rural economies.
Yet whilst a lot of work taking place in the world of technology and science has rightly switched focus to urgently address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not risk being short-sighted. The future of humankind relies on our unlocking of space. To put it starkly, if we don’t have an industrial revolution in space, humankind will suffer. And from a capitalist point of view, let’s not forget that space can not only help humanity but be very profitable for those who are good at it – and I think the UK could be!
The number of people on planet Earth is unsustainable, with the UN predicting an increase in the world’s population of 2 billion in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050. The major issue that comes with a growing global population is the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and we haven’t yet come to terms with how we confront it. The simple solutions that I hear so often – from the world turning vegan to jet-setters ‘offsetting’ their carbon – fail to confront the complexity and scale of the challenge ahead.
If the human race is going to sustain, we have to become space-faring. I’m not being deliberately controversial when I say that human beings can’t damage the planet: we can only damage our ability to live on it. I have long been fascinated by James Lovelock’s Gaia theory: the idea that Earth’s natural cycles work together to keep the Earth healthy and support life on Earth. I share Lovelock’s belief that we need to use everything at our disposal to protect this petri dish in which we live. I’m not just talking about capturing renewable energy from solar sources, which is of paramount importance, but taking this further by developing the means of doing so in space. We know that the race to reliable and sustainable energy is critical and it could be fuelled by elements outside of planet earth.
The energy of stars, fusion, can produce nuclear power in a non-radioactive way. It could be very complementary to variable renewables as a reliable energy source that we can turn on and off as required. But time isn’t on our hands – if we want to see it make an impact on decarbonisation in the 2030s and drive the green economy forward, we can’t hang around for slow, government-designed pilot plants to be rolled out or be filed away in the ‘somewhat challenging’ cabinet. We need to put faith in the private fusion sector and enable public and private fusion partners to work together to industrialise – rather than the opposite. The idea that deindustrialisation will solve our problems is a misnomer.
Many don’t realise that if it wasn’t for space, we already wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves. We use satellites to monitor major commodity crops: rice, maize, wheat and so on. Satellites let us track key crop characteristics, such as the greenness of vegetation, the distribution of crops, precipitation and more. 20 years ago, 15% of all crops that we produced failed to make it onto people’s kitchen tables. They were simply spoiled. The GPS system alone has largely eliminated that. As the challenge of feeding our ever-growing population becomes increasingly complex – including the need to reduce our reliance on fertilisers and pesticides – we must organise ourselves far more effectively. We require more information about the impact of the elements on vegetation and an expanse of robotic, electric equipment to plant, harvest and transport crops at the right time. Managing this from space through satellites and artificial intelligence must become a reality if we’re to continue feeding ourselves.
It’s not just food security that we need satellites for. As our world increasingly electrifies and industries become more reliant upon its supply – from modes of transportation to the machines we use to source energy from – the need to manage things remotely and while mobile is paramount. The UK leads the world in satellite communications for mobility applications through London-based Inmarsat. In the climate area, the Irish Sea is home to one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms and the benefits of being able to manage its turbines (twice the size of London’s Big Ben) from space, rather than taking a boat out in 40ft waves, are immediately apparent.
So much of this is about unlocking our imagination and confronting the challenges facing humankind and capitalism in new ways. The opportunities that space offers life on Earth are endless. Returning to the current challenges facing our healthcare systems, space could unlock huge progress for the world of pharmaceuticals. Gravity changes the structure of crystals: if you manufacture medicine in zero gravity, you can create new compounds and chemicals that you can’t create on the planet, thereby potentially finding new treatment pathways.
I’d like to close with something Professor Stephen Hawking once said to me: ‘Humans must expand into space because in the next 5,000 years, science predicts that there will be a catastrophic event that has a good chance of wiping out civilisation’. Failing to build on the progress marked by Virgin Orbit’s successful satellite launch and drive forward our attempts to industrialise space could have grave consequences.
We are moving in the right direction: even now, successful local companies such as the Airbus-owned Surrey Satellites and AAC Clyde Space are leading the world in producing the new generation of small and cube satellites which will help kick-start this industrial revolution. But we must maintain momentum. While there are concerns about space debris, the reality is that it’s a legacy issue from the early Cold War days of space. It is not a long-term threat, since we will clear up what there is, and I believe the UK will be in the forefront of efforts to do that.
Today’s space race is not about global politics, technological superiority or state hegemony: it’s about the durability of the human race, the endurance of global living standards and our future existence on this planet.