Space Debris

Climate Change: Wales – in Westminster Hall at 4:50 pm on 14th July 2021.

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Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle 4:50 pm, 14th July 2021

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 4:51 pm, 14th July 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered space debris.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. If the covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can no longer take the unexpected for granted. The lesson that we must learn is that we need to look elsewhere for other seemingly unfathomable scenarios, recognising that they sadly may come true one day. Already the pandemic has hastened our awareness of other looming catastrophes. Heat domes over Canada and the western United States, combined with rapid glacial Arctic ice melting, have demonstrated the need for urgent action on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but where else might the next catastrophe occur?

One answer, I believe, is staring straight above us in the skies. After being reshuffled out of Government, I found myself promoted to spending much more time with my three-month-old daughter. Obviously, my working patterns were slightly different, and I would often find myself at three o’clock in the morning comforting a baby in our downstairs living room, and staring up at the skies under our conservatory roof. Without sounding too middle-aged, I do not remember ever being able to spot so many shining pinpricks of light, each one a satellite making its swift but steady path across the Earth’s orbit, when I was a child.

It turns out that my early morning thoughts were not just the product of sleep-deprived delirium. We are living in a boom age of satellite production. According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, UNOOSA, as of April 2021 there were 7,389 satellites in space—a 20% increase from April 2020. That is welcome news in terms of telecommunications, but who pays—not for the satellites themselves but for the risk that the proliferation of such projectiles poses for the sustainability and, indeed, future viability of the Earth’s orbit?

I believe that this is a threat that we must wake up to before we find ourselves in a catastrophe that has the potential to cause equal, if not worse, economic devastation than the pandemic. By way of a history lesson, the question of who is responsible for what we send up into space has long been debated. The Magna Carta of space law, the outer space treaty, was signed at the 1,499th plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 19 December 1966. For the most part, it is the primary piece of international legislation that guides how nations operate in space. Within that landmark text, article VI states:

“Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.”

Therefore, national Governments are now, as then, held responsible for the activities of companies, public or private, that operate in space, yet this has not prevented an accumulation of dangerous space debris, which is littered across our orbit and for which no one seems to have been held accountable.

Currently, there are an estimated 34,000 objects greater than 10 cm in diameter in orbit, 900,000 objects of between 1 cm to 10 cm in diameter in orbit, and a further 128 million objects of between 1 mm to 1 cm in diameter in orbit, and all are capable of seriously damaging or destroying vital satellite equipment. As the British astronaut Tim Peake observed, it takes only an object the size of a paint fleck to crack the windows on the international space station. Those numbers are beside the number of defunct and non-operational satellites—currently 2,900—that have sadly led to collisions, such as the Iridium-33 collision with the derelict Kosmos-2251, which caused a significant dispersal of debris. We also have the case of the Ecuadorean NEE-01 Pegasus satellite, which collided with a discarded Soviet fuel tank in 2013, seriously damaging that nation’s only satellite. Those are just two of an estimated 560 satellite break-ups, explosions, collisions or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation.

The risk of a collision in space is still low, but conjunction warnings and collision avoidance manoeuvres are becoming commonplace for satellite operators and the international space station. Most recently, in March this year, the EU’s Galileo satellite GSAT0219 was forced to perform a collision avoidance manoeuvre in response to the predicted impact of tracked space debris, which turned out to be an old Soviet rocket that had been in orbit since 1989. The international space station has been forced to conduct 27 collision avoidance manoeuvres since August 2020, with manoeuvres becoming ever more common. Apparently, it is not the harshness of space, the distance from their families or even illness that is cited by astronauts on the ISS as their greatest fear; it is getting hit by a piece of untracked debris flying past them at 40,000 km per hour.

The threat of space debris is also apparent in the increased militarisation of space and the testing of anti-satellite weaponry, most recently by the Russians and Chinese. When we talk of military satellites, we automatically think of cold war-era spy satellites, but anti-satellite weaponry has now advanced from the realm of star wars under Reagan to become a very real and dangerous issue. In 2007, China’s intentional destruction of the Fengyum-1C decommissioned weather satellite through the use of a ballistic missile was a success, because the satellite operated at the same height as many American and Japanese satellites. It was destroyed, but it caused a massive dispersal of debris, which is still a problem today. That single explosion has accounted for 10% of all catalogued debris. Should anti-satellite battle strategies continue to be developed, we will fail to prevent Kessler syndrome, whereby an exponential splintering of satellite debris leads to further collisions, from developing.

That concern is not simply confined to missiles, as Russian satellite operators have engaged in anti-satellite proximity operations, positioning satellites in harmful trajectory of critical western satellites. In 2014, a Russian satellite named the Luch was purposefully moved into proximity to both Italian and French military communications satellites. Additionally, in July 2020, the Russian military satellite Kosmos-2543 released a high-speed projectile from its main body, causing the American Space Force to declare that the activity was

“consistent with a test of a new anti-satellite capability.”

Although the projectile failed to collide with another satellite, the capability to shoot down satellites from satellites has now been proved feasible. The test occurred after an April 2020 test of the Russian Nudol system, which is designed to engage satellite targets in low Earth orbit. More recently, from July 2017 to December 2019, the Chinese satellite SJ-17 made a series of manoeuvres with other Chinese satellites that took them past the UK Ministry of Defence’s Skynet 5A satellite.

The issue is important because it puts everything, from our military satellites to our global navigation satellite system services and environmental Earth observation satellites, in danger. Manoeuvring satellites around others is exactly the kind of misguided bravado that could cause a cascade of debris to form and then cut off our use of satellites—and future satellites—for our low and medium Earth orbits. Unfortunately, there is painfully little international agreement that prevents nations from recklessly using their satellites or even equipping their satellites with weapons that are not weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons.

The Russian Government’s choice to fire a projectile from Kosmos 2543 proves that the interpretation of article IV of the outer space treaty, which prevents nations from putting WMD or nuclear weapons into space, applies only to WMDs or nuclear weapons. We have a gap in the treaty.

As so often in international affairs, we have a problem that is growing in a less than adequate direction from current international treaties, and a global response that can only be described as lacking. Yet that has begun to change, as the recent G7 leaders’ summit in Cornwall proved with a joint statement on space debris, giving some much-needed leadership in an area that is vital for the continuation of human development, both in space and on Earth. In the joint statement, G7 leaders pledged to promote a

“safe and sustainable use of space to support humanity’s ambitions”.

The statement went on to

“recognise the growing hazard of space debris”,

highlighting the fragile nature of our planet’s upper atmosphere and promoting the desire for nations to co-operate in the safeguarding of space. Additionally, the G7 agreed on the importance of continued international collaboration and the promotion of both public and commercial efforts to clean up our low and medium Earth orbits.

Increased awareness, investment and specific regulation will be vital for a path forward to prevent the increase in space debris, removing what is currently a problem, and preventing irresponsible satellite activities in future. The joint declaration from the G7 was a strong step forward towards building strong space regulation and fostering the continued international partnerships between nations and private enterprises. However, more must be done to hold all space-capable countries and companies accountable for the shared good of our Earth orbit.

This problem will continue to be more apparent as the number of satellites, space missions and even commercial flights to the edge of space increase. I am sure we were all at the edge of our seats on 11 July last week when Sir Richard Branson came home after successfully visiting the edge of space during Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight. I congratulate Virgin Galactic on that achievement. Although that milestone should be celebrated, Virgin Galactic’s mission success highlights the increased interest and ultimately the increased accessibility of space.

Additionally, missions to provide satellite broadband to the world, including the 3 billion people who do not have broadband access at the moment, by companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb and the many state-owned Chinese aeronautical companies, will require the deployment of thousands, if not tens of thousands, more satellites. Those mega constellation projects have already begun, as there was a 28% increase in satellites from 2020-21.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation has already launched 1,730 satellites as of May 2021, with a total of 42,000 planned over the next few decades. Truly, we are living in a second space age of which we can all be proud, and thankful for the development of this remarkable technology, but the dramatic and continued increase in the number of satellites being launched means that we need to have an awareness of the increase in the amount of space debris and the real danger that it will pose to our modern world.

Many of the satellites that we rely on provide services for GNSS, also known as GPS. That is classified as an invisible utility, and for good reason, because without GNSS nearly every branch of critical national infrastructure would be in obvious jeopardy. Communications, emergency and hospital services, finance and transport all rely on GNSS to operate smoothly, and all rely on satellite services.

To put the importance of GNSS into perspective, a 2017 report by London Economics calculated that the economic impact on the UK of a five-day disruption to the network would put thousands of jobs at risk and cost around £5.2 billion—a major disruption to every aspect of modern life not even being counted in that figure. A disruption of that magnitude is not out of the question, and we need to face the reality. With more satellites comes more debris, and more opportunities for a serious accident to occur, as space travel becomes commercialised and access to space becomes ever more possible.

Should we continue largely to ignore the issue of space debris, we risk developing a situation where the upper atmosphere becomes completely unusable—that Kessler syndrome that I mentioned of an hypothesised scenario, where due to the amount of junk in space, pieces begin to collide with each other on a far more regular basis, causing a cascade of debris, effectively cutting off use of our lower orbit.

This growing number of satellites are becoming dependent on support technologies to avoid not only the increasing debris we are inevitably creating but other satellites. According to Holger Krag of the European Space Agency, today 15% to 20% of all satellite-avoidance actions involve manoeuvres away from other active satellites. That means that there is an increasingly established process of satellite operators contacting each other and co-ordinating actions to avoid collisions.

All that takes time and resource, contingent on fuel levels, satellite response times and successful co-ordination from operators. Because there is no universal system, such as an air traffic control for satellites, we are wasting fuel, decreasing response times and lowering the lifespan of satellites. International standards and agreed regulations will be incredibly important, moving forwards into this new space age. Thankfully, the UK, even though it is not a tier one space power, much as I would like it to be higher up that agenda, has been leading the way on space debris, by using our brilliant diplomats to push for an updated international legislative framework, aimed at modernising space law, and creating consistent legal frameworks that will help create sustainable space development.

The UK was among the first international partners to join the US-led Operation Olympic Defender, an effort to build closer co-operation with allied nations in securing and protecting space. The UK has also worked with the UNOOSA to encourage the development of space debris removal technologies. In addition, space domain awareness is a critical enabling capability, if the UK is successfully to manage the threat posed by space debris, including its removal.

The UK military recognise the need to understand this rapidly evolving and dynamic landscape in order to protect, defend and regulate the UK’s space interests, and to mitigate the threats posed to the UK’s assets and critical national infrastructure, and to play its part in assuring safe and responsible behaviour in space.

In January this year, a new space domain awareness software capability, known as Aurora, went live for operations and was successfully deployed into the Defence Digital’s MOD Cloud ICE. The software was designed, developed and deployed by CGI in partnership with the Royal Air Force and the UK Space Agency, as part of work to enhance the current UK Space Operations Centre.

Space is inherently dual use in nature, with congestion and debris an issue for both military and commercial satellite operators alike. The UK has a long-standing heritage in space domain awareness, and arguably has one of the best space domain awareness sensors in Europe in the form of RAF Fylingdales. Current and planned defence radars can contribute to space domain awareness through the inherent sensitivity, range resolution and discrimination capabilities. They benefit defence and wider Government objectives, and should be progressed at pace. RAF Fylingdales is also renowned for its whole-force approach to space operations, working with industry partners to develop this capability. British company Serco has been working with the RAF and now Space Command to deliver the RAF Fylingdales orbital analysis servers and sensor support for over 55 years. Serco is now exporting this heritage and skillset to support US Space Command with deep space surveillance.

Commercial space operators also have a large part to play, and a vested interest, in creating a sustainable space environment. Last week, in a speech at Space-Comm expo in Farnborough, which I attended, Rajeev Suri, chief executive officer of Inmarsat, set out a vision for

“an unrelenting commitment to sustainability in space”.

Mr Suri also highlighted the need to pay close attention to the potential risk of collision and the growing challenge of atmospheric pollution posed by deorbiting satellites, particularly during the recent rapid expansion phase of mega constellations, which I have spoken about.

The UK already has fast-growing capability in debris removal technology. The UK team at Astroscale are leading the mission operations for the world’s first commercial debris removal mission, ELSA-d, which is currently in low Earth orbit, preparing for the capture of a dummy defunct satellite, using a magnetic-capture docking-plate mechanism, in the next few months. This mission will be a milestone moment for the deployment of debris removal services, including Astroscale’s next phase partnership with OneWeb, via the European Space Agency Sunrise programme, to develop the technology to remove multiple pieces of space junk in a single mission and to demonstrate the commercial viability of a future service, ELSA-M.

At the same time, the UK is witnessing a surge in start-up space companies that are placing sustainability and environmental concerns at the heart of their missions. For example, Black Arrow, which plans to become the first net-zero launch company, is investigating the innovative use of new, environmentally friendly propulsion fuels and recoverable and reusable rocket launchers, to demonstrate to the space industry that we can chart a new net-zero course for space.

We need not invest in clean-up missions and sustainable space technologies simply out of altruism. It is important to recognise the potential growth that the space sector can provide for UK plc. Figures released in May by the UK Space Agency showed that sector income rose by 5.7%—from £14.8 billion to £16.4 billion—between 2016-17 and 2018-19. I would wager that it has risen higher still over the past two years. Over the same timeframe, employment in the sector increased by 3,200, to 45,100 people, and supportive R&D technology investments relating to space activities increased by 18%, to £702 million.

In short, the space industry in the UK is in a good position to not only do the responsible thing and help solve a growing problem, but to be successful while doing so. The UK needs to build itself a space-centric education pipeline to properly capitalise on the growing environment of the successful UK space industry. Investing in R&D technologies such as robotics, autonomous systems, quantum computing and satellite technologies will help the UK capture a space industry market share that is bigger than it already is. Currently, the in-orbit servicing sector is estimated to be worth $4.4 billion, and, should we act fast and invest in the best bets when it comes to space debris removal, we should be capable of capturing at least $1 billion of this market by 2030.

Central funding will be a key solution to this technological problem, and the UK Space Agency, via the UK Government, has been leading the way in helping develop new and innovative technologies for cleaning up space. In 2020, the UK Space Agency allocated £1 million to companies to assist tracking space debris. In addition to awarding £2.5 million to Astroscale UK in May 2021, only a few weeks ago the Government invited space firms to apply for a share of up to £800,000 in funding for the purpose of cleaning up space. For this initiative, the UK Space Agency is seeking to fund additional debris removal feasibility studies and develop debris removal mission concepts and system designs. Due in part to this renewed funding, the number of jobs in the UK space sector has increased, and overall income in that industry continues to rise. Continued funding, paired with internationally recognised regulation, will be the key to ensuring that we can tackle space debris as a nation.

For the UK to take the much-needed serious step in global leadership and position ourselves as a leader in space sustainability and debris removal, we must continue to encourage the development of environmentally sustainable space assets. The ELSA programme from Astroscale is a strong start, but we must continue to invest in our UK space assets and our cutting-edge R&D programmes in this field. By encouraging the commercialisation of space debris removal, we will also be fostering a financially lucrative industry that can be driven by the UK and create future UK jobs. This can be accomplished by increasing the scope and financing of the recent UK Space Agency phase A study, which is aimed at supporting space debris removal proposals. I urge the Minister to look at that study.

We can also take a leadership role globally by ensuring that regulation keeps up with industry development, and specifically by making it mandatory for companies to develop satellite sustainability contingency plans and encouraging partnerships with companies such as Astroscale for satellite end-of-life services with the use of docking plates. Regulation can also aim to ensure that low Earth orbit satellites have the capability to undertake collision avoidance manoeuvres and encourage the development of a space traffic control system. By establishing a “pay now or pay more later” system to encourage companies to prepare satellites for removal or face serious costs later if they are forced into collision avoidance manoeuvres, we will encourage companies to establish sustainability plans. Consistency and transparency in these matters will encourage space industry investment.

We must also remember that as global Britain, we need to leverage our international alliances with global partners such as the United States, Australia, Japan and India to establish agreed regulation and resist aggressive actions from other countries, such as China and Russia. With these partners and more, we can help establish a “net zero space” sustainable development goal to face this growing challenge in our lower and middle Earth orbits over the coming decades.

Two years ago, when I was an Energy Minister at the same time as being space Minister, I signed net zero into law, committing the UK to becoming the first major nation and the first G7 country to state that we would have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Two years on, 75% of the Earth’s land mass has now committed to a net zero target ahead of COP26 this year, which just goes to demonstrate the leadership role that the UK can play globally. We can demonstrate to the rest of the world what can be achieved, so let us now take this opportunity to show leadership on space debris internationally, and to push for a net zero space environment and lead the world in the sustainable use of space.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:18 pm, 14th July 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I thank Chris Skidmore for having secured this important debate, and I pay tribute to him for his work as the vice-chair of the parliamentary space committee and thank him for his analysis of the issues around space debris, as well as the space history lesson. Space is such a fascinating topic, and every time we discuss it in this House, it never fails to inspire awe and excitement. Britain has a proud history of space exploration. In fact, to add to the history that the right hon. Gentleman set out, the British Interplanetary Society is the oldest space advocacy organisation on Earth; there may be other, older ones elsewhere of which we are not aware.

Here on Earth, as we aim to enter, as the right hon. Gentleman set out, a more socially conscious era of green growth, protecting and keeping our Earth and seas clean is commonly discussed, but rarely do we look up and think about how clean the sky beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is. That is one reason why this debate is so important—because we are addressing an under-discussed topic on which the Government have failed to provide direction, and exploring the opportunities, as set out so eloquently by the right hon. Gentleman, that may arise from the need to address space debris.

I will not repeat all the statistics that the right hon. Gentleman set out, but it is striking that there are more than 900,000 objects currently orbiting the Earth, with 23,000 of those being pieces of man-made debris larger than 1 cm. Since 1957, there have been 10,680 satellites launched into Earth’s orbit, with around 6,250 still in space, which is impressive, but only 3,700 are still functioning. If any two were to collide, the result could be catastrophic, creating thousands of new pieces of dangerous space junk, as the right hon. Gentleman set out. These objects could stay in orbit for hundreds of years, putting at risk working satellites that people depend on for everyday services.

The threat is not only far above our heads. In May this year, an 18-tonne chunk of metal that was once the core stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket crashed down to Earth, narrowly missing the island of the Maldives. Last year, research for the International Astronautical Congress revealed that the 50 most dangerous objects currently in orbit were all large rocket boosters, mainly from Russia, left drifting around our planet.

As the right hon. Gentleman suggested, the removal of hazardous materials on Earth or in space presents a significant commercial opportunity. A joint venture between the UK and Japan, the Tokyo-based firm Astroscale, which has control centres in Oxfordshire, launched two rockets to begin the process of cleaning up some of the 9,000 tonnes of space debris. I am pleased that it is leading the way. What discussions has the Minister had with Astroscale, and what steps is she taking to support the British-based clean-up firms of the future? I am pleased that at the G7, as the right hon. Member for Kingswood alluded to, the UK joined our allies in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the EU and the US to take action to tackle space debris. Those nations agreed that we need global standards on space debris and committed to the long-term sustainable use of space. However, what will that look like in real terms? Can the Minister tell us when we will see a long-term, sustainable plan for space debris? For that matter, can she tell us when we will have a space strategy?

The space industry generally is worth more than £14.8 billion per year and has grown at a rate five times greater than the wider economy since 1999. The success of this sector helps to drive prosperity across the UK. UK space businesses spend around £750 million annually, with around 1,500 UK suppliers based across every region of the UK. Many of the jobs created in space manufacturing are also highly productive, with the average salary of an Airbus UK space employee, for example, standing at £51,000—nearly 50% higher than the UK national average. The UK’s proud history in space exploration, research and development makes us an excellent launchpad for future growth and for leadership in the space debris domain.

The UK and its place in the world are changing. We have left the European Union, which meant turning our back on the Galileo project that we did so much to bring about, at an estimated cost of £1.2 billion to the taxpayer. The Government then U-turned on plans to develop a rival, sovereign GNSS system, at a cost of a further £60 million. Can the Minister tells us the status of our sovereign satellite navigation capability? The right hon. Member for Kingswood set out the possible impact on our economy of space debris reducing or stopping GNSS services.

The Secretary of State has decided to take control over strategy and policy away from the UK Space Agency, handing the almost £600 million budget directly to the Government. Yet, as I have mentioned, we remain without a long-term, specific space sector deal and have not received an update on the space growth partnership since its launch in March 2018. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made by the Space Growth Partnership in achieving its stated aim of the UK making up 10% of the global space market by 2030? What role does she see space debris clean-up playing in that partnership and in that growth? What analysis will be conducted of the market risks and national security risks that the right hon. Member outlined?

The Government talk excitedly about global Britain, but Labour wants to see an interplanetary Britain, powered by a booming space sector. Space is not just for the stars; it impacts every household in the country. From climate change and rural broadband to transport and agriculture, from our smartphones to our credit cards, the UK space sector helps us all prosper. The satellites at risk from space debris are central to providing those services.

The Government have failed to come forward with a clear, long-term space strategy to fully unlock the potential of the sector. Without such a strategy, the hard work of our space sector—developing spaceports, rocket launchpads, space domain awareness projects, military grade software and satellite projects that are critical for our vital infrastructure—cannot be fully realised. If we are to ensure the success of those programmes, we must understand whether we have the industrial capability to do so. Part of unlocking the potential of our space industry is knowing how we utilise our industrial base to achieve our goals, and in turn where we need further investment and finance to encourage outward investment by UK businesses.

There is no strategy for external investment or for skills—in particular, diverse skills. The space sector needs the skills of everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, region or age, and it is not as diverse as I am sure the Minister would like. There is no strategy for that. There is no strategy for industry and manufacturing, for sovereign navigation satellite capabilities or for whether and how we will compete with SpaceX and others. Instead, we have the manifesto of a Government who have their heads in the clouds—they certainly do not have a strategy for space. Down on Earth, the sector is still waiting to hear about the future of the new regulations introduced under the Space Industry Act 2018, particularly those dealing with administrative burdens and liabilities.

Nothing better illustrates the lack of strategy and transparency than the purchase of OneWeb despite the advice of experts and the concerns of the UK Space Agency. First we were told that it would be a part of our sovereign GNSS programme, but then it was not. We still do not know what the Government have planned for OneWeb. We heard that it may be part of our approach to space debris. We do not know whether that huge investment will ever support jobs in the UK space sector if the satellites continue to be manufactured in Florida. I would appreciate it if the Minister gave some clarity on the space strategy generally and specifically on OneWeb.

The space sector provides the UK with many opportunities to grow our economy, push technological boundaries and boost our soft power by developing strategic interdependence with our allies, which I very much support. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Kingswood secured this debate, but as the Minister for space until 2019, he oversaw and was responsible for many of the policies that he referred to and the lack of an ongoing, sustainable strategy, or indeed any strategy, for our space sector.

A year ago, UKspace set out the urgent need for a coherent, cross-Government space strategy, and we have still not seen one. Labour would seek to support our sovereign capability in the space age and build on the UK’s proud history of technological innovation and space exploration. Labour is passionate about the long-term future of the space sector and its potential to provide high-skill, high-paying jobs across the UK and step up to deliver a long-term sustainable strategy for managing space debris with UK businesses and our national security at the heart of this interplanetary clean-up.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:31 pm, 14th July 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore on securing this incredibly important debate and on continuing to champion our space sector throughout his time as a Minister and in this House. I know that he recognises how important to the UK the risk of space debris is, as he noted in his excellent piece in The Times this morning. It is always a great pleasure to hear from Chi Onwurah. I share her passion for the amazing space sector.

Over the past decade, the space industry has become one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors. It currently employs more than 45,000 people and generates £16 billion annually. The UK has grasped the opportunity by encouraging space sector growth, facilitating the development of space ports to launch satellites from the UK and investing in the OneWeb satellite broadband constellation. But it is important to recognise that space is getting crowded. Although space may seem vast, the orbits around Earth are a limited natural resource, and we must use them responsibly and protect them for future generations, including my granddaughter. It was interesting to hear my right hon. Friend talk about staring at the stars with his daughter.

The growing issue of orbital congestion and space debris could limit the benefits that we get from space and, in the extreme worst case, prevent our use of it altogether, so where does that leave the United Kingdom? Space debris is a global challenge that requires an international effort to remedy, as has been said. Nearly 3,000 working satellites share those orbits, and it is estimated that there are 130 million pieces of debris, about 30,000 of which pose a significant threat.

In the next decade, we expect to see growth to more than 10,000 active satellites in orbit, and we do not want a similar growth rate of debris. The UK has active partnerships in multilateral, intergovernmental forums, including the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and its sub-committees, and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. We continue to lead in those forums, working with international partners to agree best practice, develop guidelines and support initiatives that enable and promote sustainability and limit the potential for accidents in space. To ensure that UK space operators meet international guidelines, approaches to space debris mitigation are a key part of UK spaceflight regulation that are considered during the licensing of their actives.

At the G7 in Cornwall last month, the UK facilitated an agreement between nations to strengthen our collective efforts to ensure the sustainability of space for all. That includes how we limit the generation of new orbital debris. We are not only talking; we are investing in technology to address this issue. Currently, our main mitigation against collisions between satellites and debris lies in our ability to detect, identify and track objects in space and take evasive action.

The UK Space Agency is working in partnership with the Ministry of Defence to improve our capability to monitor and warn of hazardous space events. In January, working closely with the UK Space Operations Centre, the UK Space Agency began piloting national collision warning services to enhance our national space surveillance and tracking capabilities. Also, joint civil and military space domain awareness helps to protect UK satellites in orbit and our critical national infrastructure, which is reliant on space services. However, as the amount of debris and the number of active satellites increases, accurately predicting potential collisions becomes harder.

The risk of collision and the number of false alarms can be minimised with better tracking and through the use of emerging and innovative new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to sort through the mountains of data. However, if the volume of debris and the number of satellites in space continues to increase, as we expect, this action alone cannot fully mitigate the risk. Protecting longer-term UK interests in space will mean reducing the debris population and preventing the creation of new debris. We must look to tackle the cause of the problem, rather than just addressing the symptoms.

Space debris removal is not yet a common capability. However, space agencies, including NASA and the European Space Agency, have launched innovative programmes to combat debris, and the UK has played a real leading role in this activity. In 2019, we invested £80 million, through the European Space Agency, in debris and clean space activities, including research into detecting and tracking debris, lessening the burden of collision avoidance, limiting the production of more debris and cleaning up existing debris.

Working with Switzerland and through the European Space Agency, we are contributing to a satellite mission that will be able to capture and deorbit large pieces of debris. And recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting Astroscale to discuss its privately funded ELSA-d satellite, which right now is demonstrating technology that removes different satellites from orbit. In fact, it was absolutely fantastic to see. Both these missions are looking to utilise the operation centre that we built in Harlow precisely to manage and operate such innovative missions.

There is a commercial opportunity emerging in orbit servicing and in managing the safe disposal of satellites once they are no longer useful. Just last week, Edinburgh-based Skyrora announced a challenge to find and remove Prospero, the first British satellite to have been launched successfully by a British rocket.

Businesses across the world, but particularly in the UK, are developing the innovative technology to address this market, which is estimated to be worth over £2 billion over the next 15 years. We want UK industry to lead when it comes to the sustainable use of space. Last year, we awarded £1 million in grant funding to support projects led by United Kingdom companies, focused on mitigating the effects of harmful debris. This year, we will award a further £1.2 million to continue to develop the enabling technology and £800,000 to study the feasibility of a national mission to remove debris from orbit.

However, we recognise that UK leadership in this area can only trigger change if it is supported by international regulatory standards that require companies or nations to remove debris, in order to create a commercial market. Therefore, we should lead global discussions on the right safety and security norms, and ensure compliance with international obligations in space debris mitigation, while we invest in the research and development to best capture that commercial market of the future.

With significant strategic opportunities ahead, the UK needs to be the shaper of this evolving landscape. By taking leadership in space sustainability, the United Kingdom can drive national and international capability development, and regulatory advances. We can lead international action to establish rules governing the sustainable use of space through close working with allies and multilateral engagement. We must also continue to protect our industry and critical national infrastructure, and better understand the orbital environment through joint civil and military space domain awareness.

I can assure the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central about our imminent space strategy, which we will launch in due course. Timely and sensible Government support will allow us to grow our industrial and academic capability, in order to support UK industry in taking opportunities in the emerging orbital market. This activity could quite literally provide a rocket boost to the economy.

We have an excellent opportunity to secure a leadership role in space sustainability, and with it a bright, sustainable future for the space and satellite application industry, which will deliver benefits for generations to come.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 5:39 pm, 14th July 2021

Thank you, Mr Dowd, for your chairmanship of the debate. I thank the shadow Minister and the Minister for their contributions. It is clear that we share an equal passion for the importance of the future of space sustainability and what role space debris removal can play in that sustainability.

This is the first debate that has ever been held in Parliament on space debris, despite it being an issue that has been known about in the space community for more than 55 years, since the signing of the outer space treaty. The UK has a unique opportunity to show international leadership in this area, backed by future investment. I hope that space debris is part of the UK space strategy that the Minister outlined—it has every right to be so.

I have been contacted by a wide number of industry and academic experts. I am delighted that the Minister has met Astroscale, but I hope she might attend a roundtable of experts on space debris that I might organise in the future, with people from industry and academia, including Imperial College, the Open University and Leicester University. It is amazing how many people have been working on this subject.

We have the opportunity, just as we do with net zero, to set out a vision of net zero space. Let us be the country that does that, in the same way that we are the country that has led the charge on net zero. Net zero is so important now for setting out the future vision of our green economy. Setting out a future for our space economy can be built around a sustainable space environment, in which the UK can lead the way.

The Minister is doing a great job and I would urge her to think about how this issue can fit into her wider vision on space, and to attend the roundtable that I might organise as a result of this debate. I thank everyone for attending and speaking in this first debate on space debris and setting out why it is such an important and critical issue to resolve for our future, to avoid any future scenario where we are unprepared. The unexpected can be anticipated if we expect it, and I hope this debate has woken us up to the risks that space debris could case if it is not tackled for the future. I hope it places a marker in the ground—a sustainable marker, which can be removed, of course—that demonstrates that we can act, we need to act and we need to act fast in order to prevent collisions in the future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered space debris.

Sitting adjourned.