Britain’s ambitions to become a major space power took a knock last week as Virgin Orbit, the company who hoped to achieve the first successful rocket launch from UK soil, filed for bankruptcy protection.
After its flagship mission failed in January, the company has struggled to generate new investment and now stands on the brink. Spaceport Cornwall risks becoming Newquay Airport once again, and Cosmic Girl, the aircraft carrier set to leave an eternal legacy, faces an uncertain future.
While an eminent place in the pantheon of British scientific feats no longer beckons, Virgin Orbit has led the way on domestic space endeavours. Others will follow. Commercial attention is turning to space at a rapid rate, and Richard Branson is not the only billionaire launching objects into orbit.
Elon Musk has grabbed headlines for his management of the Twittersphere, but it is in the atmosphere where his impact may endure the longest. Starlink, his controversial network of satellites, could reach over 40,000 in number, but is it unsustainable junk or a valuable tool?
Astronomers have criticised the conglomeration for causing light pollution and blocking their observations. Opponents also point out the negative climatic effects from old satellites burning up upon re-entry to earth.
On the other hand, the technology has the potential to deliver low-cost internet to remote locations across the globe, and has replaced damaged communications infrastructure in Ukraine. Science Secretary Michelle Donelan has called its application in the UK “crucial to our levelling up plans”.
Space sustainability is at its core a question of access. While enhancements in digital connectivity can provide new access to education and healthcare for those in need, Starlink also threatens the principle of free access to outer space.
At completion, the network will quintuple the number of satellites in space, dramatically increasing the risk of collisions and reducing room for other missions. If countries feel blocked from space, then potentially dangerous consequences arise.
As military space capabilities rapidly advance, any loss of access could prove disastrous to national security, with both defensive systems and economic infrastructure heavily reliant on space technology. Increased competition risks opening another frontier where deadly conflict could break out.
Governments must take an active role in how the use of space is managed. When Science Minister George Freeman announced the UK’s ‘Plan for Space Sustainability’ he warned “a ‘Wild West’ space race without effective regulation risks a growing crisis”.
Countries and corporations will continue to try and capitalise on the potential of space to solve global sustainability problems, from mining for scarce resources to the provision of baseload solar power.
As global warming worsens, space will play a vital role in mitigating its effects. Weather satellites can predict climate disasters and aid prevention efforts. While other technologies can help us adapt and become more resilient, for example by bolstering food security through monitoring water availability or overfishing.
As with all areas of sustainability, effective communications are crucial for companies looking to shape space development. The benefits of proactive PR and public affairs include educating the public, boosting investor confidence and shaping a supportive regulatory framework.
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