Written Evidence Submitted by NATS
- NATS is the UK’s leading air navigation services specialist providing, under license, en route air traffic management services over the UK and eastern North Atlantic from centres at Swanwick, Hampshire and Prestwick, Ayrshire. In addition, we are contracted to provide air traffic control services at 14 major UK airports, and offshore services to the world’s busiest heliport in Aberdeen in support of the North Sea oil and gas industry.
- Airspace is a critical pillar of UK national transport infrastructure supporting the wider economy. It enables the safe and efficient passage of aircraft, connectivity with markets across the globe, goods to be transported, and supports tourism.
- Prior to the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK was the third largest aviation market in the world, behind only China and the United States, with direct connectivity to over 370 international destinations. Aviation contributes £52bn to the economy, employs a million people, and is a key enabler for trade – 40% of the UK’s non-EU trade by value travels by air. We hope to get back to doing what we do best when Covid restrictions allow.
- NATS thanks the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for the opportunity to contribute to its inquiry into a new UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure. Our response is principally concentrated on the provision of national space-focused services to the commercial sector which also enable a national safety and security oversight capability.
- If the UK wishes to be a leading spacefaring nation and grow its contribution to the global space economy to 10% by 2030, the UK will need to manage its space flight and orbital activities in a manner that minimises the risks and maximises the opportunities of space.
- There are two basic capabilities that the State will need to provide to ensure that innovation can thrive both safely and securely. These are the Space Situational Awareness technology capability and Space Traffic Management procedural capability. We will focus our response on the benefits that these capabilities would bring.
Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Technology Capability
There are a significant number of objects in space which can endanger spaceflight, and there is currently no full understanding or picture of where these objects are. Safety is NATS’ first priority and it must also be the first priority for space management. The UK should construct a space surveillance capability, in conjunction with other global partners, to enable increased situational awareness in space.
This capability would provide:
- Orbital Debris Management. Space debris is a significant and growing problem. Orbital Debris Management is essential to tracking, monitoring, and managing existing debris as well as ensuring that the creation of future debris is minimised so that access to space, and the benefits it delivers, are retained into the future. It is likely that this service would be most efficiently provided through international collaboration.
- Space Surveillance and Identification. There are many operational objects passing through space which require monitoring and identifying. It is likely that this task would be most efficiently provided through inter-operability with the UK’s Space Command.
The provision of Orbital Debris Management and Space Surveillance and Identification would enable essential details of potentially hazardous and conflicting objects to be provided to commercial operators to ensure the safe launch, operation and recovery of commercial space vehicles. It would also enable the UK’s security interests to be met.
Space Traffic Management (STM) Procedural Capability
The increased situational awareness of where objects are in space will enable the UK to establish a system of Space Traffic Management (STM) akin to the management of airspace at lower levels by NATS. This would enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in the space environment.
This capability would provide:
- Safety Oversight. The STM capability is required to provide safety oversight of commercial operations. While the primary means of deconfliction is expected to be the responsibility of the commercial provider, it is recommended that an additional oversight capability is provided by an independent organisation.
- Security Identification. The provision of SSA and STM services to commercial operators would need to be inter-operable with the UK Space Command, much as NATS and the MOD co-operate over airspace access and the identification of aircraft within it.
- Equitable Access to Space. The STM capability would act as an impartial third party able to ensure fair and equitable access to space, including passage to and from space through controlled airspace during ascent and descent. This ensures that larger operators or those with first-mover advantage do not act to prevent subsequent operators from accessing airspace.
- Airspace Management during Launch and Recovery. Space vehicle launches require segregated airspace that embrace not only the expected launch trajectory but also a significant area beyond the expected trajectory in case of launch failure and the break-up of the vehicle. One recent application for a space launch has requested segregated airspace 2000nm long and 100nm wide. This would obviously have a dramatic impact upon commercial aviation planning to fly through such airspace, incurring delays and additional environmental emissions. To minimise this impact, technologies and procedures need to be developed to reduce the size and duration of the segregated airspace required, with the goal of full airspace integration. The UK’s Airspace Management Cell, comprising representatives of civil and military air traffic control, provide a model of how airspace negotiation and access arrangements could operate. This Cell manages the booking of airspace for the UK, ensuring that activities on each day are deconflicted and that conflicting priorities are optimally managed and delivered.
- Planning, Coordination and Activity Synchronization. The service would deliver a planning, coordination, and in-orbit synchronization of activities to enable the planning and efficient management of a schedule of activity.
The benefits of SSA and STM can be best demonstrated by the un-managed return to earth of a Chinese Long March 5B core stage in May 2021. SSA would provide the ability to track and manage debris in space, while STM would provide the knowledge of potential conflicts and what actions to take to resolve any conflicts.
This proposed model of capabilities is similar to that proposed in the USA, where the Federal Aviation Authority is developing the Space Data Integrator, to enable more efficient use of airspace to support spaceflight. The system integrates feeds from multiple sources and allows the FAA to manage space flight and notify the ANSP of both clear airspace or the need to clear additional airspace in the event of catastrophic failures or unplanned re-entry by an orbital object. The provision of such a facility in the UK would support the safe and sustainable use of airspace for all users as the frequency of spaceflight increases and new technologies such as sub-orbital flights become reality.
Other space-based services that would benefit UK-based space operators include:
- Secure Precision Navigation Services to enable accurate position and timing to be developed for a range of applications and increase safety of flight etc.
- Country-wide communications services.
The above services could cumulatively deliver:
- Protection of UK National Assets and Commercial Space Assets
- Improved launch windows offering commercial advantage for launch
- Mitigation of the effect of orbital debris on space activities
- Provision of Trusted Conjunction Alerts
- Encouragement and facilitation of UK commercial leadership in STM and SSA
- Global co-ordination of STM
- Prevention of unintentional radio frequency (RF) interference
- Improvement in space object registry
- Reduction of spaceflight activities’ insurance premiums
- Financial economies of scale for UK space industry
- Increased market competition and a level playing field.