Written Evidence Submitted by Patrick Harkness, Reader in Space Systems Engineering, University of Glasgow
I am an academic working in the space sector, responding to the Call for Evidence in a personal capacity.
What are our prospects, both individually and through international partnerships:
1. The UK is positioned such that we can launch approximately northwards, from our northern and western coasts, over the open ocean. Spacecraft launched on this trajectory will most naturally orbit at a high inclination, approximately pole-to-pole, while the earth rotates below. This means that a UK-launched spacecraft will overfly most of the earth’s surface in a short period of time, which is important for fast-revisit earth observation activities. Many spacecraft designed for this observation activity use the small, modular CubeSat architecture, which can perform this role from low altitude. These small spacecraft have the advantage of low costs and rapid build times, which facilitates new missions in response to research developments and new observation targets. Finally, due to their low orbits and small size, the space debris issues associated with such operations are minimised (although pushback from the astronomical community is emerging).
The UK is already a noted centre for CubeSat manufacture, which is an activity particularly centred around Glasgow. These spacecraft, if they could be built and flown within the scope and duration of a single PhD programme, could also serve as an educational and skills-development platform in support of the spacecraft (as opposed to the space launch) industry.
In summary, there is a significant synergy that can support the space activity in the north of the UK, whereby the small satellites already being built in Glasgow, for international customers, are best-placed to exploit the orbits that can be most easily accessed from our northern and western coasts. The rapid development time is an advantage, but fully leveraging that rapidity depends on funded engineering research (see item 6) and responsive access to space (see item 11.)
2. The UK is a highly influential soft power, with a strong reputation for international development and environmental stewardship. We are well-placed to support developing countries as they seek to launch their first spacecraft (often for earth observation purposes, the better to protect their natural resources), and also to support technically-capable allies where it is appropriate to do so (perhaps in support of our national strategic objectives).
The frequent overflight scenarios that arise from the near-polar inclinations discussed in item 1 mean that we are well-placed to offer efficient launch options to developing countries, in pursuit of rapid-revisit earth observation, across a wide range of latitudes. Technically-capable allies may also be responsive to a deepening relationship. For example, launch from Ukraine is off-optimal (and only borderline possible from the area south of Odesa, generally eastwards across the Black Sea). Can we find a mutual benefit in such scenarios?
3. The UK has a global presence, with multiple options for ground stations in support of a highly-resilient near-Earth space monitoring network. Also, from any point in non near-Earth space, it can be possible to establish a constant line of sight to some combination of UK assets.
Many partner countries do not have a persistent global presence, and the ability to provide one is a considerable strength that cannot easily be replicated by competitors.
4. The UK is undoubtedly one of the ‘major participants’ in ESA, which gives us considerable influence in the activities of the agency (e,g. mission selection), access to business support (e.g. SSTL Lunar, a tremendous opportunity), and access to the inspiration value of human spaceflight (already proven in LEO, and perhaps to be exceeded on the Moon and eventually Mars).
This partnership must be maintained.
5. Our influence over EU funding directions has been degraded, and our eligibility for participation in space-related projects has only been partially restored (as of June 2021).
The space engineering funding landscape, which already has specific issues at the national EPSRC/UKSA interface (see item 6), relies heavily on the EU for (international) governmental support. This is a strained relationship, but an important one.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector research and innovation base:
6. The research base in space, as delivered by UKRI, has a specific delivery challenge with respect to EPSRC.
The remit of EPSRC, according to its website (with my emphasis), is –
Our remit covers engineering and the physical sciences: we fund research into chemistry, engineering, information and communications technologies, materials, mathematical sciences and physics. Though we do not have restrictions on application areas, the majority of research we support must be in engineering and the physical sciences.
However, when proposals with applications in space are made, they are often rejected on that basis. A typical response from EPSRC, when challenged (with my emphasis), is –
EPSRC does not fund research which is solely focused on space applications or missions, but it does invest in underpinning research and skills that may have application in a number of areas, including space. We continue to work with the UK Space Agency to explore potential areas of strategic activity, however in the absence of additional money to support this we will not be able to deviate from the aforementioned statement.
These statements appear to be incompatible, and this issue has been the source of significant frustration since the establishment of the space agency. Fundamental academic research in space engineering (as opposed to technological development and science activities) is difficult to fund from UKRI sources, and this shortcoming must be addressed. Space engineering research does not require special favours to correct this imbalance, but only a level playing field with respect to all other application areas.
7. UKSA (which tends to fund engineering at a higher technology readiness level than UKRI) suffers from the lack of a multi-year budget. This means that there is sometimes a non-strategic scramble for short-term funding, resulting in a process that struggles to attract and retain the best researchers.
8. The innovation base is better served, and UK Government funding is available through DASA as well as numerous commercialisation funds, while the new hot-fire facilities are to be particularly welcomed. However, the tension between funding road-mapped technologies and open research needs to be acknowledged: road-mapping allows strategic thought, but disadvantages disruptors and is vulnerable to the sunk-cost approach.
9. There is a confusing number of organisations, councils, and industry groups. A national organogram, showing the roles of UKRI, UKSA, MoD, SUN, SPAN, UKSpace, NSC, SLC, Sprint, SpIN, Catapult, and many others, would be helpful.
10. Some of the highest-level bodies are opaque. The website of the Space Leadership Council, for example, has the action list of its 22nd meeting (in 2016) online, and no others. Who has been in attendance more recently? What was discussed? Can this council be lobbied? When will it meet again?
What should be the aims and focus of a new UK space strategy?
11. Item 1 indicated that a key focus should be responsive access to space. Many of our strengths (including some future UK-GNSS concepts) derive from the small satellite sector, and the key advantages of this sector are i) its responsiveness to new mission profiles, and ii) its value as a teaching platform. However, these advantages are nullified if small satellites struggle to obtain low-TRL funding and then, if funded, must spend many years awaiting a rideshare to space.
The new UK launch activities therefore strategically important, and one way to support this activity is set out in the submission from the R2T2 consortium [declaration of interest, I am proposer of this activity].
12. The UK is a small country with responsibility for a disproportionate area of the natural world, with the 5th-largest EEZ, polar territories, and marine reserves. Responsible stewardship means that we need to monitor both human and natural activity, and rapid-revisit space-based assets are likely to be a key aspect of this work. There are synergies with item 2.
What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient, and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure?
13. The advantages of a launch capability (item 1), with benefits for soft power projection (item 2) in support of our shared environment (item 12) have been discussed. This needs to be backed up by a skills development programme (item 11.)
Within that strategic agenda, there must be support for disruptive thought. That means that low-TRL academic research in space engineering must be fundable (item 6), and where disruption starts to move towards an exploitable paradigm the handover from research to technical development (item 7, item 8), then the appropriate road-mapping process must be more transparent than currently appears to be the case (item 10).