In April 2020, a train of brilliant lights flying across the night sky caught the public’s imagination, lit up social media and made headline news: the Starlink internet satellites. In the few minutes they took to arc overhead and out of view, they embodied the incredible journey the space sector has made over the past decade: from nation-state dominance to vibrant commercial enterprise. It is a transformation the Satellite Applications Catapult has both championed and enabled.
Space is now an agile, dynamic and accessible industry. Its capabilities today are impressive but we are only just beginning to realise the true possibilities – and benefits – it can deliver. If the challenges we face are complex, global and multiplying, then the new era of space development provides good reason for optimism.
In this next phase, the space sector will magnify and extend its reach. By 2035, we will be living in a world where low-cost constellations of satellites make drone deliveries, autonomous vehicles and truly seamless communications everyday realities. Earth observation, meanwhile will play a critical role in global sustainability and deliver a comprehensive and continuous health-check for the planet.
Persistent observation systems, teamed with advanced quantum powered analytics, will provide even greater visibility and real-time insights into the world around us. The latest AI capabilities, combined with improved optical and radar systems, will ensure this intelligence is available 24/7, whatever the weather.
Transparency from space into greenhouse gas emissions levels will support the drive to meet global climate targets, underpinning both policy and accountability. Robust and reliable global satellite data will enhance food security, by supporting sustainable, resilient supply chains and by enabling us to continually optimise food production. The increased use of robotic systems will play an ever-more important role here, too.
Global connectivity will actively bridge the digital divide. Satellite communications serving billions will transform the way we procure and interact with an ever increasing array of services, from health to retail. Many phones will connect directly via satellite. Virtual reality and holograms will become standard features of our daily communications, making good use and driving even greater demand for low latency connectivity from low earth orbit.
By this time, mega constellations will be well-established infrastructure, and we will be already looking at what comes next. We will start to see the construction in space of much larger antennas and telescopes that will improve still further our communications capacity and imaging resolution. We may even see the emergence of massive ‘fractionated’ antennas, made themselves of constellations of highly coordinated satellites.
All of this will be enabled by a new generation of autonomous robot constructors, transforming how we conceive of, and create, space-based structures and vehicles. Strong global governance to protect the space environment will have helped to mature this technology, creating a demand for in-orbit satellite servicing and the swift clean up of orbital debris.
Autonomous robotics, combined with an order of magnitude increase in space infrastructure, will accelerate commercial activity. We will see at least one private space station established, and a likely permanent presence on the moon. Manufacturing facilities in space will start to emerge, exploiting the microgravity environment for high value products like specialist semiconductors and optical components. They will also provide a starting point for commercial solutions for energy from space.
The biggest transformation will be the scale at which other sectors embed and exploit space services back on Earth. From energy to health, construction to tourism, over the next 15 years the space sector will increasingly set the groundwork for large scale industry transformations, eliciting greater governmental interest in the resilience and security of the space environment.
We are entering the era of infrastructure in space. The possibilities for bold endeavours that benefit Earth are myriad: from clean, sustainable energy to precision manufacturing to new fields of medical research, we will super-charge our capabilities, and truly put the benefits of space within reach of every business and citizen.
This journey has already begun.