Microgravity – an opportunity for UK leadership
As momentum in Space builds, we need to focus effort on areas where the UK can lead; microgravity commercialisation now and manufacturing in future is perfect for this. These are fields where we can make a real difference, but they need leadership, a government shove and industry support.
The unique environment of microgravity (10-6 of what we experience on the Earth) allows for a world of experimentation that is advancing the human race and reducing our impact on the planet. Routine experiments in the International Space Station range across all scientific disciplines, help us understand fundamental challenges we face on Earth and show us how we might prosper in space. Space allows us to inter alia develop new materials, accelerate biological and genetic understanding and test theses in near-pure circumstances. Every sector of research and development has an interest in this area, bringing direct benefit to us on Earth and enabling our designs on travel afar. In time, manufacturing in space will bring even greater benefits. However, Space Station capacity is limited and the experiment backlog is substantial. Some experiments are best done in orbital conditions, but others could be conducted using suborbital flight which provides good quality microgravity, long duration and high repeatability. A quicker experiment cadence would allow for rapid prototyping, acceleration of technology readiness levels and a faster path to market for emerging science.
These fields have no Global leadership, but the unique convergence of expanding launch demand, a busy and energetic Government in Whitehall, the UK's world-leading scientific capability and our impressive track record in getting the most out of not very much, suggests that we should seize the lead. We have locus in experimenting under microgravity conditions, could expand this dramatically and drive commercialisation of the sector. This would need us to establish a centre of excellence, drive the science of microgravity experimentation, set the standards, expand the supporting technology, co-ordinate global activity, cluster manufacturing and crowd-in investment. The UK is good at these things – framing an idea, corralling nations and organisations, setting the rules and procedures and enabling others to benefit.
Space is a team sport, but the first Nation to market will attract the most innovative, risk-tolerant, and exciting opportunities and flourish thereafter. The UK should be at the forefront of this ambitious and stretching dimension to Space.