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Where will the NewSpace race take us in 2022?

Jim Graham

Space race

2022 promises to deliver pivotal moments in space, with several major programmes in the pipeline, including the US return to the moon and Europe and Russia attempting landings on Mars. This unlocks the door for great strides towards progress on international and industrial collaboration, maintaining the safety and viability of future space endeavours. 

Arguably, such strides are fast becoming imperatives. In January, Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee met to discuss UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure. And last week, the UK Defence Space Strategy (DSS) was published.

Key themes emerging from both include international cooperation, commercialisation, and collaboration across industries. So why are these so particularly salient for space? There are some clear similarities in what has been discussed and from our fundamental recommendations provided in our ‘Shared Space’ Insights report from July 2021, which I felt worth highlighting. 

A word on commercialisation

Commercialisation is the latest shockwave to have hit the domain and it is acknowledged that it was largely military and institutional spending that got the industry to this point. Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite launched by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, triggered the US to set up DARPA, which drove technology development across numerous programs, that has often led to commercial opportunities. Government investment and geopolitical contests have provided the springboard for modern day commercialisation.

The emergence of internet billionaires has caused a paradigm shift in the commercial Space world and appears to have overtaken the institutional world in the last few years. Between 1958 and 2009, almost all of the investment in space was by major public institutions, like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). But in the past decade, private investment has risen sharply to reach 15% of the total spend. In 2020, despite the pandemic, such spending hit a record $8.9 billion and annual global revenue from space-based services exceeded $300 billion for the first time. More than two thirds of this went to commercial organisations. However, this does not mean public entities are being pushed out. There is a strong appreciation for the need to transcend traditional boundaries – industrial or geographical – in order to reap the highest returns. 

During the Parliament’s Science and Technology committee meeting, Josef Aschbacher, Director General at European Space Agency, said Europe had ‘no shortage’ of expertise but venture capital investment in space was 15 times lower in Europe than the US; and Europe’s processes were ‘too slow’ to support businesses. He said improving commercialisation was a ‘top priority’ for ESA, adding that he was ‘inspired’ by the UK’s ‘commercial attitude’ towards the industry. He identified three elements for this commercialisation: talent, access to money, and speed.

Meanwhile, the DSS notes that the diverse range of commercial companies and organisations that offer technological development in the space domain opens up the possibility that ‘Defence may wish to simultaneously utilise and protect from proliferation.’

Space advancements have exposed a need for greater security

The intensity and proliferation of offensive capabilities in space will continue to up the ante. Some nations, particularly Russia and China, are pursuing non-destructive and destructive counter-space weapons, like jammers, lasers, or anti-satellite (ASAT) systems, along with cyber-attack capabilities - cyber also being within the capacity of smaller, non-state actors. This is particularly noted in the DSS.

One of the most prevalent drivers is the growth of grey zone conflict. Grey zone actions seek to achieve their means as expediently as possible, and through whatever channels are most vulnerable - maintaining deniability and conveniently skirting around the conventional laws of armed conflict. Space is becoming the perfect breeding ground for this type of campaigning, where satellite jamming and spoofing devices are now part of the everyday arsenal. As a result, adversaries are increasingly incorporating space as part of the combination of tactics they can use to destabilise enemies, targeting both military and civilian assets in equal measure. If they want to survive in the contested frontier, all Space services and products should now consider their robustness and resilience in line with those of military systems. 

Such a maelstrom of threats has led the DSS to acknowledge that inaction ‘risks undermining the significant investments we have made in capabilities reliant upon the space domain’ and thus calls for an improvement in national sovereign resilience. Private companies, no matter how well capitalised, will simply not be able to repeatedly replenish space assets that have been disabled by hostile actors. Any organisation operating in this domain is vulnerable to such threats, no matter its size, industry or experience.

Space debris

As the adversarial threat is growing, so too is the problem of space debris. It is estimated that there are 160 million objects in Earth orbit and by far the majority of these are debris, which range from spent rockets to flecks of paint. Only a fraction of this debris can currently be tracked and avoided by working satellites. Given the huge velocities involved, even a fleck of paint can cause worrying damage to satellites and spacecraft in low Earth orbit. Speaking on the subject, Hiroshi Yamakawa, President at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said an international code of conduct was ‘vital’ to manage the issues of space debris and risk of collision in low-earth orbit. This debris does not discriminate: what is unsafe for a government defence mission is equally unsafe for a private company’s satellite constellation.

Innovation and technology: open architectures and dual-use

The integration of technologies will be a defining factor in the success (or failure) of tomorrow’s space ecosystem. Many in-service space systems are built using legacy proprietary architectures. This makes it hard to integrate a range of different technologies and systems to improve functionality, and get them to work together. However, technological interoperability is beginning to improve. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter (which recently flew on Mars) was built using the Linux operating system and it has announced the planned VIPER Lunar Rover will employ open source software to navigate the lunar surface. Open architectures like this should be encouraged to evolve into best practice and be embedded into the design/development programmes of public and private space systems. 

Dual-use systems encourage new partnership models, new financing models, and new ways of sharing knowledge. They drive collaborative innovation programmes that are ‘mission-led’, and they are often fuelled by past lessons that showcase where dual-use would have delivered better results. This is not something that can happen overnight, but there are steps that can be taken in the right direction, such as streamlining procurement processes in larger institutions that could be ‘cumbersome’, as Aschbacher said. He affirmed that there were plans in place to make it ‘much easier’ for SMEs – from the UK or elsewhere – to win work with ESA. 

The DSS points out that defence will explore the use of the National Security Strategic Investment Fund – the Government’s corporate venturing arms for dual-use advanced technologies – ‘as a vehicle to shape commercial space development for Defence needs.’ It also highlights the importance ‘of integration between domains and across Defence, and across government, with international partners and the commercial, research and scientific sectors’.

Combined skillsets

The committee chairman, Greg Clark, cited evidence from Lockheed Martin which said smaller UK firms struggled to access ESA programmes, and called for the UK to have a ‘better balance’ between national projects and ESA initiatives. Achieving a better balance between smaller firms and larger public or institutional bodies not only benefits innovation. An advantage of this closer integration is the opportunity to combine skills.

For example, effective space-based data exploitation is fast becoming a decisive weapon in defence and security, but it is not a skill traditionally abundant in the public sector. The private sector is a hub for talent in data science, but many businesses lack the expertise and confidence to take on the daunting regulatory hurdles associated with data collection and exploitation. The public sector cannot compete with the private sector for technical skills, but does wield the legislative weight to negotiate legal pitfalls. It also possesses an understanding of the public it serves and the ‘big picture’ when it comes to political and socio-economic issues. Integrated, these strengths could be a formidable force. Both public and private organisations need to identify what skills they have and what skills they lack, then work together to plug the gaps and move forward together. That requires greater understanding of their respective ways of working, their constraints, and their influences.

Recognising the high-growth, high-skills nature of the sector, the DSS states that there are ‘opportunities for Defence to redefine its procurement processes to maximise collaboration to improve recruitment and retention of scarce skills across the sector.’

The final word

When all is considered, it certainly appears that 2022 is going to be an inflection point for the final frontier. It is our responsibility to drive the impetus to both enable these efforts, and protect our current and future aspirations. Collaboration will make this possible. 

To read more about QinetiQ’s views on this new model for space, go to our Shared Space report. 

Download the Space Insights Report

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