Last week I attended the UK Space Conference in Manchester. The UK Space Conference is a biannual event that brings together the UK space sector (industry, academia, government etc). It has been growing consistently and this year there were approximately 1200 delegates. The conference also features a public exhibition that was also well attended (apparently about 1000 people a day). For me it’s not only a change to keep up to date with what the UK space sector is doing but also, it’s usually a good way of getting to grips with government plans, both from policy announced but also personal communication with civil servants, however this wasn’t really possible this year owing to the general election on Thursday, limiting what government employees can say and do.
The conference started with a half day event called Space 101. It was “a series of workshops covering a variety of topics delivering a comprehensive introduction to the UK space sector.” This is important as the UK’s Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) calls for the UK space sector to claim 10% of the global space economy by 2030 (ie grow from its current value of ~£13 Billion to £40 Billion). The IGS recognizes that most of this growth will have to come from new entrants to the space sector and be dominated by ‘downstream’ applications (ie things that use space data and services to provide a product or service, Google Maps and Sky TV being prominent examples. Upstream is things like the actual satellite or the launch service.)
I feel that Space 101 was a missed opportunity. While I didn’t attend all of the sessions, the ones I did were less workshops and more panel events like the rest of the conference events. And they were attended by many of the same people who attended the conference itself. I would have made Space 101 a parallel event, like the public outreach ‘Discover Space’ event, and made it free to attend. I would have made the sessions more workshop-y than they were, and perhaps have held something like a hackathon (there were people there from the EU’s Copernicus programme evangelizing the free data on offer from that service.) And considering that Greater Manchester/Liverpool is one of if not the biggest tech start-up hubs I would have made an active effort to invite local university students and start-ups. Throughout the conference we heard the importance of reaching out to non-space people in order to grow the UK space economy, there was an opportunity to do that here.
As for the conference itself, there was the spectre of Brexit hanging over the whole event. Brexit wasn’t discussed much itself, although it was mentioned more than a few times. I think there are a few issues. I still think that many people are in a state of bewilderment around the whole thing, and more than a few who still cling to the idea that the government will come to its senses and not go through with it. But I think the bigger issue is that we really have absolutely no idea what Brexit is actually going to look like (although I’m of the opinion that crashing out of the EU with no deal whatsoever is looking increasingly likely.) It’s hard to plan for the unknown. I overheard a few conversations which essentially said they’re holding off on opening an office in Dublin because they don’t know if that’ll be enough. However, the sector can’t wait and see, nor stick its head in the sand over Brexit. At the very least we need to figure out what we need and then lobby for it. I was pleased to see that the UK space industry trade association, UK Space have published a leaflet doing just that, but more needs to be done. Particularly as access to the EU space programmes, Galileo and Copernicus, are central to the IGS, as I’ve previously discussed.
One of the big topics at this conference was the UK’s plans for spaceports and spaceplanes. Spaceport Cornwall held a big announcement of their partnership with Orbital Access and Reaction Engines were prominently featured in the exhibition hall. The UK government is putting a lot of faith in the opportunities that will be provided by a UK spaceport, as evidenced by the draft Spaceflight Act (which wasn’t much mentioned…) Personally, I am rather sceptical of the UK spaceport concept. While a cool idea and one which I can see having some value the reality is the UK is simply in the wrong place to be much value as a launch site. Add to that the complications (ITAR et al) of launching vehicles like SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard from outside of the United States (and the fact that the CEO of Virgin Galactic basically said that they’ve no plans to do so in a recent interview) and it all seems a little desperate (and I’ve heard that perspective advanced by European colleagues). I think the UK would benefit considerable more from seeking to become part of the ’supply chain’ for the asteroid mining industry as we’ve already got experience and expertise that companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are going to need, but I will go into that more in a later post.
I was pleased to see that the topics of space security and space situational awareness (SSA) got some attention at this conference. There was a plenary session which included, among others, Major General Crosier (USAF) from US Strategic Command. There was also a parallel session which focused more on SSA. There were a few things that I took away from these two sessions. The first was that we really need to get a good handle on SSA, given the current debris problem and the projected growth in activity it is a recipe for disaster if we don’t. It also seems sensible for it to become a civil thing rather than the military dominated activity it currently is. Not least for two reasons, first international cooperation is easier between civilian organizations (there are certain things the US Air Force are simply prohibited from sharing with the RAF let alone the Chinese Air Force…) second, it would hopefully prompt or even force the commercial space sector to take ownership of the problem. The likes of SpaceX and OneWeb have a substantial stake in the problems of space debris and space traffic management even if they haven’t quite yet realised it. Finally, the revolution in space commerce has its benefits and downsides for the military. On the one hand the military can get the space enabled products and services for a lot cheaper than they could when they had to order bespoke solutions, however it means that adversaries like ISIS can also get their hands on commercially available tech, like GPS receivers and even satellite imagery.
Perhaps two of the most exciting presentations I saw were from on orbit servicing company Effective Space. I have known about on orbit servicing as a concept for a little while, indeed, it is probably the primary market for the asteroid mining industry, and I’ve heard that there are a few UK based companies pursing this but had not heard of or encountered Effective Space before. Essentially, it’s all about extending the life of a satellite. They’re mainly focused on the technical challenges of mating with satellites that aren’t designed to be serviced in orbit, but there are a number of interesting legal and regulatory challenges. These are exacerbated by the international nature of this activity. Effective Space said that they hope to be up and running within three years, which means that lawyers and policy makers need to be working on these issues now.
Overall, the conference was excellent and enjoyable. Manchester was lovely, if understandably subdued given the recent terrorist attack, and the weather cooperated for the most part. I look forward to UK Space Conference 2019.