Space, Spaceflight, UK Space Industry

The New Superpowers of Space

Back when we were first reaching out to the stars, there were only 2 really big players in the space industry: USA and Russia/ the Soviet Union. Of course there were private contractors hired (mostly by NASA) to build components, but most of these were primarily defence or aviation companies whose technology or expertise could be applied to particular parts of the space program.

Source: Statista

The US remains the largest player by far in the space industry (it’s government spending alone accounts for 11.6% of the global space economy). But the space industry is thriving and growing bigger and more global every year, with new companies starting up in both the upstream (launching rockets, building satellites etc) and downstream (earth observation, communications) sectors, and governmental agencies seeing more investment as countries look to capitalise on this new resource. The ethics and sustainability of this acceleration is an important topic, but requires a whole post of its own… today we’re going to look at some of the countries (UK, Australia, India & China) who are going to play a big role in the current space boom!

The UK

Starting close to home, the UK has had a space programme since 1952, and even launched its first (and only) rocket, the Black Arrow, back in 1971.

The current rendition of the British space program (formed in 2010) is known as the UK Space Agency- unlike NASA it doesn’t own or operate any large space centres, for research or launching, but it plays a key role in UK space policy, funding and collaboration. Instead, the UK space industry is typical of a ‘NewSpace’ Industry, one dominated by private companies rather than a central government body. And it is thanks to these businesses that the UK’s 50 year launch hiatus is coming to an end, with multiple launch sites set to open over the next few years! 

This, along with the recent opening of the National Satellite Test Facility, run by the STFC, means that the UK space industry encompasses the whole space supply chain, from the development and operations of both satellites and launchers, to downstream companies using the data from these satellites in their businesses. 

via STFC

Looking at the numbers, the UK already holds 5.1% of the global space economy, and 6% of global private space investment, which might seem small, but this is second only to the US. 

The aim is for the UK to hold 10% of the global space economy by 2030, but although the industry is growing year on year, valued at £16.4bn in 2018/19, so is the rest of the world, so our share of the industry has actually slightly decreased since 2015. So how does this affect the UK’s chance of being a space superpower? The National Space Strategy outlines that the UK wishes to reinforce its credibility as a space power, but without a certain economic future, how can it do this? It will instead focus on becoming a ‘science superpower’ by building expertise in academia and industry!

Although independent access to space is great, space is fundamentally a global enterprise, so the partnerships made by private space companies and in academia, as well as the UK’s participation in international space projects through ESA and the Artemis Accords, means we are able to participate in many space missions, including high profile ones such as Perseverance and JWST! 

Explore more of the UK Space Industry

Australia

One of these recent partnerships is the UK-Australia Space Bridge. The UK space agency and ASA may have only recently signed a collaboration agreement, but their partnership dates back to the very early days of space. Remember Black Arrow? Well that was actually launched from Australia, from the Woomera RAAF Range Complex in South Australia. The 2021 agreement seeks to ‘enhance cooperation’ between the two countries, at the industrial and academic level, and so far it has seen $500k allocated to 5 research projects: 3 for earth observation and 2 for communication/security.

When you think about it, it’s a bit odd that Australia isn’t already a big player in space- it’s a highly developed, wealthy country, with a fairly well-educated population (although inequalities exist due to the mistreatment of the aboriginal population), and significantly for the space industry, it has a huge amount of sparsely inhabited land and sea to launch over.

Additionally, its size means it has the potential to launch into a variety of orbits: Its first spaceports, in South Australia, are best suited to polar SSO orbits like the UK is, but a spaceport further north, would open up the opportunity for less inclined orbits, such as those like the ISS travels in.

But despite this and Australia’s early start at rocket launches, their space industry has remained pretty small outside of research institutions, with about 600 space-related institutions. However along with the space bridge agreement, and a deal with NASA to build an Australian lunar rover as soon as 2026, it has recently seen some acceleration, not only in terms of international cooperation, but also within the country, with a $65 million planned investment into spaceports and a future astronaut program, so it looks like it is finally capitalising on its resources to enter the industry. This could have real implications for Australia’s economy for 3 reasons:

Me as a kid visiting one of Australia’s mines
  • In 2015, Mineral Extraction accounted for ~15% of its GDP, and it was the world’s 4th biggest producer of coal. Therefore loss in the economy due to moving away from fossil fuels and to more environmentally sustainable practices could be replaced by a growing space sector, as well as a move into renewables. This expertise in mining and resource extraction, could also be used within the space industry, for both geological missions and potential exploitation of resources in space. 
  • Although a transition to sustainability is necessary, it’s likely that mining will remain a key part of its economy for years to come, and space technology can support autonomous mining vehicles, making it more efficient. 
  • Australia is suffering greatly from climate change, such as with the increased frequency and intensity of forest fire and drought. It’s possible that earth observation could help to adapt to climate change and support its agricultural industry, as well as contribute to fighting climate change.

Explore more of the Australian Space Industry


What is a Superpower? 

A term I learnt from Geography, a superpower is a nation with the means to project its influence globally, using both hard (military) and soft (diplomatic and economic) power. Space capabilities are often indicative of superpower status, as they can be associated with hard and soft power! Satellites play a big part in modern life, such as for communications, navigation and earth observation (both scientific and military), so being part of the space industry gives a country access to these independently. Being able to operate and manoeuvre within space, also gives you power over other countries’ space infrastructure, for example with the development of anti satellite weapons. Much of today’s core space technology developed from military technology (rockets basically started out as missiles that don’t come back down/explode!), so it’s obvious how space links to hard power. Additionally, soft power can be exerted with the inclusion and exclusion of countries from partnerships. 


India

Like Britain, India has had aspirations for space since the early days of the space race, with ISRO being founded in 1969, and unlike the UK, where interest fizzled out in the 70s, India launched its first satellite in partnership with the Soviet Union in 1975, followed in 1980 by a launch of its own- an Indian Satellite on an Indian Rocket, becoming only the 7th country to do so, and it’s been launching regularly ever since then! To date, it has had 117 successful satellite missions, 70% of these launched by Indian rockets.

Most of these satellites were for Earth Observation or Communications, consistent with ISRO’s main mission to ‘harness space technology for national development’. It can be argued that the best way to achieve this is through earth observation and remote sensing- and ISRO evidently believes this too, having built the largest non-commercial earth observation satellite constellation (IRS, 11 active satellites), as well as offering courses in ‘Geo-processing using Python’ and other more general GIS topics. 

Cartosat-2D, one of India’s earth observation satellites, launched in 2017

It also has its own set of Navigational Satellites, NavIC, a constellation of 7 satellites covering itself and many surrounding countries on the Indian Ocean, which provide a service like GPS, but can actually be more accurate (NavIC has an accuracy of 1m, whereas your phone GPS is accurate to 4.9m, though better receivers can be accurate to 0.3m) This independence really helps it prove its superpower status, as it means it isn’t reliant on other countries for access to satellite navigation, which is heavily integrated into modern life.

NAVIC isn’t quite a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), but covers a significant geostrategic portion of the region surrounding India)

It truly is a spacefaring nation, and has the track record to show, having been the first country to discover water molecules on the surface of the moon, despite only having sent 2 lunar satellites so far! As they become more confident with building and launching satellites, they have also started to explore beyond Earth’s gravity well, with its first mission to Mars, the Mangalyaan orbiter, in 2014.

It already accounts for 2% of the global space economy (this might seem small, but US government funding alone accounts for 11.6%), and being an emerging country with an accelerating national economy, I definitely think it will be a key player in the space industry!

Learn more about the Indian Space Industry

China

Potentially the biggest future player in space is China. They have historically been left out of international cooperation, mainly due to the political tension between the US and China. However, their space program dates back to the 50s with the adaptation of missiles into rockets for space travel, as it began its attempt to equal the might of western superpowers. Its first crewed program, inspired by the US-USSR space race, was eventually cancelled, but its rapid economic growth since its opening to the world economy in the 90s lead to a greater investment and development of space technology, such as its Long March rockets. 

They suffered a string of launch failures between 1992-6, but were able to learn from this and their space program really took off in the early 2000s, launching the first BeiDou satellites (another navigation constellation) and its first astronaut, becoming only the 3rd country with independent human spaceflight capability. Since then, it has launched 13 taikonauts (astronauts within the CNSA space program), 3 space stations. The current space station is Tiangong (3), and will be the first to rival the ISS in size (though still is only ⅕ the size, more comparable with the Mir station), as the first 2 were single module prototypes for the latest design. The main module, Tianhe, was successfully launched in 2021, and additional modules are set to join by the end of 2022. However it soon resulted into controversy, with the uncontrolled descent of the main rocket stage putting vast swaths of the earth at risk of impact. 

This isn’t the first time China has been pulled up for its lax attitude to space debris, having conducted multiple ASAT (anti-satellite) tests over the years, blowing up satellites and creating fields of debris- one of which resulted in the ISS having to manoeuvre out of its way last year, 14 years after the test. 

However, nearly every space superpower (US, India, China, Russia) has conducted ASAT tests, and you could argue that even the space debris clearing satellites like Skyrora’s Space Tug and Astroscale’s ELSA-d could be used for ASATs, albeit less destructive. The ASAT tests have mostly been demonstrations to establish the perpetrator as a superpower, rather than to deliberately harm the space environment.

Tianwen 1, China’s first Mars Mission

CNSA doesn’t just have power within Low Earth Orbit, but has also begun to reach into the solar system, with 5 robotic moon missions (including a sample return!) since 2007, and even successfully launching to Mars during the busy 2020 launch window.

Their crewed spaceflight success is especially impressive considering their exclusion from global initiatives like the ISS by the US. It’s not completely isolated though, and has recognised the need for international cooperation, having worked with ESA since 2004 through collaborative satellite projects, astronaut training (ESA’s Samantha Cristoforetti and Matthias Maurer attended training on China’s Shenzhou spacecraft, opening an avenue for future ESA use of Tiangong), and even talks about future moon missions. 

via ESA

However China’s main partner, and increasingly so in the last year, is Russia, with partnerships on navigation satellites (already signed) and a lunar research station, and it would be an oversight to not mention the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which has already (as well as far more pressing impacts within Ukraine), resulted in the suspension of Russia from and delay of the Exomars mission, as well as threats to the International Space Station. It’s possible that if the relationship between China and Russia strengthens as a result of this conflict, it could put wider international collaboration in jeopardy for China.

However, the space partnerships appear to be more beneficial to Russia, who spend much less on their space industry than china, and are being increasingly excluded/excluding themselves from cooperation with ESA and NASA as a result of both wider geopolitics and the invasion, and China initially appeared to be attempting to remain neutral in the conflict, as not to be caught up in further sanctions (although Russia has recently asked for support, which China has not yet stated if the economic aid will extend to military assistance).

Learn more about the Chinese Space Industry


The Space Industry could be worth $1 trillion by 2040, and it’s clear that we are only becoming more and more reliant on space technology. So as more and more countries gain space capabilities, it is all the more important to see the development of strong policy around sustainability (use of resources, space debris) and international relations. Its an exciting time for the space industry, and with more countries becoming involved, it should make space more accessible than ever!

I hope you enjoyed this article, it was a bit longer/more essay-like than my normal style, but this is such a big topic I felt it needed it! I loved writing it as I was able to combine my passion for the space industry with my knowledge from A-level Geography, which was pretty fun! As always, I couldn’t include every facet of each country’s space programme, and there are more countries than just these 4 that could be considered emerging space superpowers, but this article was already rather long! Information correct at time of publication.

You can learn more about the global space economy here:

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