Written Evidence Submitted by the Space Academic Network

(SPA0009)

 

Introduction

The Space Academic Network (SPAN) represents UK academic space research. With a membership comprising 38 of the leading space universities and with over 150 participating scientists and engineers in its working groups, SPAN is a recognised cross-discipline voice of the research community in the areas of earth sciences, engineering and technology, astronomy, planetary science and exploration, space governance and law. SPAN is also engaged with the Space Universities Network which places the enhancement of training and teaching space sciences and engineering as its core goal.

Summary

The submission to the House of commons Science and Technology Committee can be summarised by the following recommendations:

  1. define a multi-year strategy and to commit to its delivery,
  2. consult widely with academia, industry, and government in deciding on a Space strategy, and establish a formal expert review of any concept that might dominate domestic funding,
  3. continue UK investment and participation in the European Space Agency,
  4. invest in space skills through a network of Centres for Doctoral Training in Space research,
  5. establish a National Space Skills Institute to understand the skills and diversity needs of the space sector and plan for the future,
  6. drive the development of the space economy through the support of Space Technology Innovative Hubs (£50M over 5 years),
  7. double the investment in Space Sciences over a five-year period, such that the UK is competitive with major Space nations such as France, Germany, Japan, and can commit to international partnerships,
  8. develop an ambitious Science Satellite programme though an investment of £100M to build the UK Space Industry capacity and deliver innovative and nimble space science advances,
  9. instigate a study to determine the opportunities from access to ‘mega-constellation’s and possibilities to mitigate their negative effects.

What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships?

In summary the situation is positive today, but a clear decline is evident unless corrective steps are taken soon.

The UK has a great history in space sciences and can rightly claim to be a superpower. UK academics lead in their respective fields across the spectrum of activities from astrophysics, astronomy, and cosmology, to planetary, Earth and climate science, space weather, solar physics, exoplanetary science and much more. This has been made possible through past investments from UK Research Councils and BEIS contributions into the European Space Agency and wider international partnerships.

However this success is now at great risk of decline due to the rise in ambition and capabilities of new space powers in science, combined with the lack of a programme that better serves to unite, support and develop UK strengths and capabilities in its early career academics. It is also under threat due to politics within the European space activities.

Today the UK academic community chiefly benefits from its participation in the European Space Agency through access to multi Billion Pound programmes such as Copernicus (new satellite development), Cosmic Vision, Lunar Gateway the Climate Change Initiative, ARTES and the upcoming Voyage 2050 programme. ESA is perhaps the most successful space partnership in the world and allows its members to share benefits and spread risks, unavailable to members alone. In fact, the UK is dependent on ESA because there is no alternative. If participation in ESA were to be ended, it would be very difficult to replace it requiring a new, committed partnership of nations.

However, while ESA is a fantastic organisation, it predominately funds the development of space technologies. There is very little funding of the underpinning science. This has been the responsibility of national budgets and these have been declining in real terms. For example, UK science can no longer support bilateral space projects with other key space sciences nations such as USA or Japan, nor with those that now emerge such as South Korea or UAE. Furthermore, the ESA missions themselves are becoming more complex in terms of programme structure, delivery and timescales and which favours experienced academic teams. Our European partners recognise this and exploit smaller national projects that develop the science and the technology as well as developing their next generation scientists for the later ESA projects. It is a strategy that appears to be working and UK academic success in ESA is entering a challenging period.

Thus, for continued success in large collaborative scientific missions, stronger national support is required. This needs to fund the research that provides the inspiration for future space discovery. It needs to support the research that underpins commercial ambitions. It needs to support the development of the UK supply chain to improve their success in winning ESA contracts and competitiveness internationally. It needs to support the sector as a whole to inspire, inform, enable and protect the UK.

UK Sciences are already well able to envision national projects that not only connect to their disciplinary strengths, but which also exploit UK innovations in areas such as small and micro-satellites, robotics and autonomous systems, in the use of space data through applications and also analysis. In this way the UK could better establish a balanced approach to the sustainable use of space through a blend of international collaboration, ESA and national projects.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base?

Strengths:

-          A well-respected community of academic leaders in most of the space sciences but especially in areas such as solar physics, climate science and exoplanet research

-          A strong capability in operational science such as meteorology and space weather

-          Academic developments in image sensing (e.g.  large focal place assemblies, synthetic aperture radar and in-orbit calibration)

-          Developing new technologies for terrestrial applications that can be transferred to space, for example: Quantum 2.0, Artificial Intelligence, advanced materials, and manufacturing

Weaknesses:

-          Fragmented and incoherent funding landscape between Research Councils and BEIS

-          Insufficient funding of early-stage academic research and development

-          Past overdependence on EU funding programmes

-          A declining national programme to underpin wider global positioning

-          Reliance on ESA for technical and programme management

-          Lack of long-term (decade) commitments to UK space programmes (vs annual budget cycles) leading to loss of people from research and the UK faltering as a reliable partner.

 

What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries?

Commitment to space activities are long term in nature. Exploration and Discovery science typically involve bespoke one-off missions with significant amounts of development. Once launched, the voyage can take many years before data is returned. Meanwhile Earth Science missions often require the collection and analysis of datasets over decades. Contrast this with engineering research that must be rapid to market and which will require in-orbit demonstrations to cement the necessary industrial partnerships for exploitation. 

This is recognised by most of our collaborator nations who undertake “decadal” reviews in science and technology and establish strategies best adapted to secure their priorities.  These in some cases form international commitments (to spread risk and share costs) and industrial pathways that are not subject to year-to-year budgeting crises. The recommendation is therefore to define a multi-year strategy or goal for space sciences and to commit to its delivery. This would not be an open chequebook but instead would allow delivery teams to better manage their programmes across year-end fiscal boundaries and allow them to better plan what was fundable in the future as the years proceed. It would remove the needless inefficiencies of the “stop-start” programmes we have today.

The second recommendation takes regard to the role of international partnerships. UK science has a high reputation around the world more generally and this is true for UK space. Our academics can open pathways to emerging economic partners who value science. It is no surprise that France uses its national science programme to build exactly such partnerships with for example China, India, USA and Israel in recent years. The UK science community stands ready to similarly develop new partnerships through space initiatives, both upstream and downstream.

The third recommendation is to recognise the key perspective available from the UK Science community about the direction of space activities and to ensure they, along with industry and government, are consulted as a true stakeholder before deciding on a future space strategy, and to establish formal expert review of any concept that might dominate domestic funding.

What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy, including considerations of: 

Technology is regarded as the enabler or inhibitor of a space strategy. On the timescale of the next decade, strategic objectives should be set based on today’s available technology, or technologies near to market. For ambitious “moonshot” goals, technology and capability milestones should be set in a roadmap on the timescale of 5 and 10 years, with clear decision points. Once the roadmap is defined it should be supported by an appropriate scale of funding.

Skills and diversity are topics of key importance to the space sector. Recent surveys and studies have highlighted the nature of the sector and areas for improvement. Within academic research, there is a desire to attract more PhD students who will participate in innovative research projects and who will receive training not only in technical skills but in soft skills such as team working, presentations and communication, and report writing. Whilst these soft skills are well developed in the arts and humanities at undergraduate level, it has been found that STEM graduates are often poorer in this area that is so important in the workplace. It is well documented that the majority (>90%) of PhD graduates exit the academic career path at some point, and thus a commitment to train more PhD students is a commitment to train people with specialist skills in their research areas, whilst also providing broader training. The creation of Centres for Doctoral Training can be used to extend this approach to deliver a broader more rounded postgraduate education with opportunities for cross-disciplinary research extending to faculties of business and law; thus leading to entrepreneurs and industrial leaders of the future. More broadly, establishing a National Space Skills Institute with the ability to understand the skills and diversity needs of the space sector and plan for the future, would be integral to the UK’s future growth and success.

Research funding, investment and economic growth;  the Space Academic Network has been actively involved in the Space Growth Partnership, a partnership convened by industry and government (UKSA) to support the growth of the space sector. SPAN has fostered the concept of technology innovation hubs to enable collaborative research between academia and industry, to couple market pull with research or technology push arising from innovative ideas. The funding of technology hubs at the level of £50M over a five year period would enable the translation of well-funded programmes such as the Quantum Technology Hubs and the Alan Turing Institute into space applications. The funding for collaborative research would also benefit advances in areas such as sensing, instrumentation, robotics, manufacturing and beyond. A proposal for how such an investment would be delivered is being written.

Investment has been made through organisations such as the Satellite Applications Catapult, the ESA Business Incubation Centres and STFC Innovation Centres into the development of economic growth. Using these established mechanisms and augmentations to them with regional investments through Local Enterprise Partnerships, Authorities and Administration, technology hubs will create a cross UK network of competence and investment.

SPAN advocates for increased funding of the space sciences, particularly addressing the flat-cash received by STFC in astronomy for a ten-year period, noting that this has severely impacted the develop of technology for future space missions and ground based telescopes. The Earth Observation research community recommends that the UK needs to invest into developing specialised skills and long-term national capability in EO Science, to support all elements of the EO supply chain, from new missions to new services.

Industry; the UK would benefit from having more than one prime manufacturer and a stronger domestic supply chain with lower tier companies able to compete for ESA subsystem contracts. A National Space Programme would help to achieve this, where early technology and concept development are nationally funded paving the way to both industrial and academic leadership on ESA missions. One element of a national space programme that would strengthen the UK supply chain would be a science satellite programme. Here scientific innovation would be led by academia, and UK industry would be able to compete for contracts in launch, operations, spacecraft and payload manufacture, and the ground segment. A second initiative that would strengthen UK industry would be technology hubs mentioned previously in this submission.

Civil and defence applications; The concept of dual civil and defence applications is a really interesting topic to pursue but needs to be engendered by a strong partnership between technical experts working in the two areas to ensure there is an achievable civil benefit to the arrangement. To our knowledge, there has been some success worldwide in the dual-use of observation and remote sensing technologies (e.g. the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Programme) but the extent of these are not clear and would be worth a set of studies as to what would make a really successful dual-use of observation and remote sensing technologies.

International considerations and partnerships;

  1. Internationally we need to be part of a long-term space partnership; ESA is the only space agency which is truly multi-lateral.
  2. UK space science is constantly approached for bilateral missions but arrangements rarely progress due to lack of a relevant UK budget. Joint missions can achieve impressive science but are also helpful at brokering new appreciations of mutual capabilities and of networking for future projects.
  3. UK has the capabilities and desire to work successfully with NASA, Five Eyes and commonwealth countries, individual nations in Europe, emerging and developing nations.
  4. International partnership is a cost-effective means to get UK technologies into space and new discoveries and data flows but needs long-term commitment to achieve success.

Place; More than 50 Universities across the UK are involved in space research; therefore by supporting academic research in space disciplines and collaboration with industry on commercialisation, the UK has a means to develop the space sector across the UK.

Current regulatory and legislative frameworks and impact on UK launch potential; No comment as this is a purely government matter where the major external stakeholder is industry.

Impacts of low Earth orbit satellites on research activities; The advent of “mega-constellations” has increased the level on scrutiny of the effects of satellites around Earth. New findings are emerging, such as a recent paper highlighted by the Royal Astronomical Society where “the number of objects orbiting Earth could elevate the overall brightness of the night sky by more than 10 percent above natural light levels across a large part of the planet.” Exceeding the threshold set 40 years ago for considering locations light polluted. The study included both functioning satellites as well as assorted debris such as spent rocket stages. This negative picture for ground-based astronomy could provide opportunities for other research if commercial operators of constellations were willing or forced to collaborate. Furthermore, if large satellite constellations persist and grow, and can be safely operated in space without collisions, it would force a shift of all astronomy to satellites, opening a new era for the assembly of large telescopes in space.

“Mega-constellations” offer huge increases in observing capability. Whilst the UK does not build and operate such swarms, it can build the capacity to put smaller constellation groupings into space, offering new data for research with interesting challenges in consistent and verifiable data. However, commercial offerings are often restricted in performance and in licences for data product generation so their impact on advancing UK research has so far been limited. Looking forward, a study to determine the opportunities from access to ‘mega-constellation’s and possibilities to mitigate their negative effects id recommended.

What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications including:

The UK space academic community is building the future of the UK’s space sector. It is a significant source of innovation and skilled people for the future space sector economy. For the UK to have a resilient, appropriate, and future-proofed space infrastructure, the full spectrum of the UK’s space sector (academia and industry) needs to be supported with sustained, ambitious, and broad programmes covering the space sciences and technologies right through to commercial exploitation. Brexit is a significant disruption to the sector as partnerships and support mechanisms need to be re-built, although it does bring opportunities for new partnerships and for support better targeted at UK needs.

              Resilience requires strong and diverse infrastructure (space and non-space); knowledge of the environment (Space Surveillance and Tracking, space weather); and depth of technical resources and of people with skills and experience,

              Future-proofing depends on a dynamic and innovative space community, with industry and academia working together as partners – each able to excel in their own domains, to address opportunities and the needs of society,

              The UK’s ambition and potential in space are world-class. We should benchmark resourcing and support against our principal competitors, collaborate where possible, and recognise that much of our industry is international (especially the US and EU).

Navigation systems; UK Universities lead education and research in key areas that are vital to resilient Position Navigation and Timing (PNT), including satellite navigation receiver techniques, sensor fusion (blending of multiple sensors to improve performance), orbital dynamics, space weather and atmospheric effects, quantum technology, and the neuroscience associated with navigation, including human-machine interaction. Highly accurate location data is crucial to Earth sciences including studies of earthquake, volcano, and tectonic dynamics with their monitoring systems. However, there are extant and projected growing gaps between skills needed, and skills availability leading to shortages of qualified and experienced PNT experts as well as a need for significant R&D funding into new high-innovation space-based infrastructure and associated high security, control and user  segments.  Some PNT skills are a subset of space skills. But PNT is far wider than space, and the integrity and resilience of PNT services comes from a system of systems approach where non-space elements also require PNT-specific skills.  PNT-related education and research has lost out to sectors with approved strategy and investment, and greater certainty, leaving gaps in PNT provision in e.g. lack PNT focussed degree and MSc courses, poor STEM provision and no direct support for apprenticeships as well as limited focussed research funding provision via UKSA or UKRI (e.g.  small-scale industry led studies into the UK Space Based Positioning Programme - SBPP).  Furthermore, teams formerly engaged on Galileo and other EU PNT related projects are migrating due to uncertainty. It has been projected that a 50-100% acceleration in skills development is now needed to lead and direct a holistic systems-of-systems PNT strategy. A directed and well-financed R&D programme and infrastructure investment programme is also required in order to establish global leadership and international collaboration in the development of a resilient PNT system of systems.

Weather forecasting;  Academic activities that deliver scientific and technical development and innovation across the domains of weather, climate and space weather have a critical need for enduring support. This work supports national resilience against a range of natural and anthropogenic driven hazards and elevates the status of the UK as a world leader in science and technology. Enduring support should not only underpin the science and research activities, but also deliver a framework to ensure an holistic approach to delivering Research to Operations (R2O) pipelines that are aligned to, prioritised by and driven by the needs of operational service providers, government, national resilience and user communities.

The needs of weather forecasting for satellite data are huge and brings a concomitant benefit to the scientific use of related data streams. In essence, both meteorological agencies such as the Met Office and scientific communities are reliant on constant provision of high quality, long-term data sets. Greater synergies should be sought between the communities in terms of pull-through of UK technologies,  common data platforms and exploitation for all of UK’s membership of Eumetsat.

Such an approach would ensure that scientific excellence is pulled through to deliver greatest value and benefit to the nation, rather than becoming stymied through a lack of coherent vision and funding. This would both align the academic community to areas of greatest need and national strategies, thus assuring that research is relevant, whilst providing underlying support and funding to academia to deliver value to the nation, alongside the world leading edge that will contribute to the UK’s global ambitions.

Earth observation including climate change; the UK is a global leader in these areas and sustained support (for the science and for future Earth observation missions) is needed to maintain this leadership. There is a great overlap between so-called “meteorological” satellites and “Earth Observation” satellites, particularly in public funded missions such as those used for climate change studies. Both science and services will use relevant missions of both types. A huge step forward in recent years has been the impact of research satellites, i.e. those directly inspired by novel science, galvanising repeat launches in operational systems whether it be those of Eumetsat, NOAA or the EC Copernicus programme. From a science perspective, the UK has leveraged large involvements in missions well beyond its means by participation in these large-scale programmes; alignment between science and industrial contributions has not been as good due to a lack of national programme supporting UK joint collaborative projects.

Hence to support a UK infrastructure, one needs to utilise more risky launches of research satellites to prove concepts which can then be made operational. This implies both a stream funding research satellites and one funding operational satellites with a consistent approach between the two. Secondly, the UK needs to recognise that the end product of the satellite system is data and this means a co-ordinated public funded data infrastructure with adequate budgets to support development of scientifically robust algorithms operating on high performance computing clouds. Thirdly, the UK should commit more funding to co-ordinated academic-industrial instrument projects tied to strategic objectives within a long-term national programme. Commitments need to be long-term if they are to result in resilient and robust infrastructure.

Communication (including broadband); large constellations such as OneWeb and the opportunities for 5G (and 6G, …) services will be significant drivers over the next few years: better industry-academia engagement is needed to maximise this opportunity for the UK and to provide the trained people needed by the sector,

 

(June 2021)