Britain’s future in space

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2017 was a fantastic year for space exploration. Both national and private organisations achieved ground-breaking new feats, which have set a new precedent for space investigation all over the world.  The first reuse of a commercial craft (CRS-11) by SpaceX in July demonstrates how space transport and exploration is becoming easier and more economically viable, and India’s successful attempt to launch 104 satellites (provided with some help from other nations) with just one rocket in February highlights the expansion of space development throughout various nations in the world. To emphasise this point, there were a total of seven national firsts for orbiting satellites within 2017, including ones from Bangladesh, Mongolia and Latvia.

Although Britain failed to make many headlines for space developments this year, that doesn’t mean we’re falling behind. Since our entry to the European Galileo navigation system project in 2002, Britain has been a major player in the development and funding of the project. The first test satellite for the project was developed by British-based company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and was launched in December 2005. As of December 2017, 22 of the 30 planned satellites which are part of Galileo are in orbit. While some may question the necessity of Europe’s own satellite navigation system, the answer lies in independence and not having to rely on either the Russian GLONASS or the American GPS system for our navigational needs, which could be degraded or cut off entirely by their host states. While the reality of this happening is very minor, the threat of a Europe with no satellite navigation is very dangerous as everyone uses these systems every day for personal, commercial and military uses. The Galileo system is destined to reach full operational capacity by 2019, and have all 30 satellites in orbit by 2020 – however, for those in Britain, there is one potential issue. As the project was initially created by the European Union, queries have been raised about the possible impact of Brexit and Britain’s role within the Galileo project. The Public Regulated Service (PRS) is one of Galileo’s most important features and is an encrypted navigation service for use by EU governments and authorised users. Britain’s departure from the European Union could risk losing access to PRS as a whole, which would be a tremendous loss for the British government. However, as a whole, we can rest easy knowing that the current political situation with Brexit will not affect the UK’s involvement within the European Space Agency, due to it being a separate institution to the European Union.

Galileo lifts off

Lift-off of Ariane 5 flight carrying Galileo satellites 19–22

Meanwhile, the National Satellite Test Facility was awarded £99m in backing from the British government in July 2017 in order to help show their commitment to the UK space sector. This state-of-the-art facility will attempt to make the UK a world leader in space and, primarily, satellite development, and would allow companies to test and development payloads in order to get satellites into orbit quicker. It is the answer for the need of a central and comprehensive satellite testing facility at one location. The testing facility is meant to have finished construction by 2020 and will give access to vibration, acoustic and acceleration tests, to name but a few. Once complete, the testing capabilities available should help make it easier for UK-based satellites to reach orbit successfully and safely.

Another future project being developed is the Deep Space Gateway: mankind’s first spacecraft for use in deep space exploration of the solar system. This project is being coordinated by the partners of the ISS, which include both NASA and the ESA, along with the Japanese JAXXA agency and the Russian Roscomos and some others. While the project is still in its infancy, there are plenty of opportunities for the UK to help get involved in the development of the Gateway via the European Space Agency. The first mission, Exploration Mission-1, is set for launch in 2019 and will be unmanned, however, it will be the start to allow for following manned missions.

To sum up, overall Britain’s developments within the space industry are apparent, however, this year’s spotlight has fallen primarily on private corporations such as SpaceX for their successful development of reusing spacecraft and bold claims along with upcoming and developing national agencies such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the China National Space Agency. I have no doubt that 2018 will be another fantastic year for space developments, and I hope Britain will play a greater role in international space projects in future!