The UK has announced today that it will be increasing its presence in space, moving to deter growing threats from China and Russia.
This marks the UK as being the first country to join Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led initiative designed to strengthen allies’ abilities to deter enemy attacks.
Over the next 18 months, the UK will send eight defence personnel to the Combined Space Operations Centre in California as part of the programme.
Read more about the Space Force, the proposed new branch of the US military.
It was also announced that the UK and the US will be launching a satellite constellation to test the military capabilities of small satellites in space. A team of transatlantic scientists named Team Artemis will lead the charge on closing the gap between Western defences and Russia and China’s offensive capabilities.
Russia is currently testing anti-satellite missiles, which could in theory disrupt worldwide communications. The PL-19 Nudol weapon system has been tested several times, and seems to be highly effective.
China famously shot down one of their own satellites as far back as 2007. The test was successful, but resulted in a cloud of 3,000 pieces of debris that remained in orbit. Part of Operation Olympic Defender’s remit is to tackle the growing threat of space debris, which can re-enter the atmosphere and crash back to Earth as flaming wreckage. If it doesn’t get pulled to Earth, it remains in orbit at 17,000 miles per hour, where it can damage other satellites. This actually happened as a result of China’s test, proving that anti-satellite weapons can have devastating unintended consequences.
The benefit of a constellation of satellites from a defence standpoint is that there’s more than one target. A network of satellites can likely still function if one or two have been picked off and destroyed.
The UK is planning to invest £30 million into Artemis, hoping that breakthroughs in technology can protect existing satellites. These new designs will be small and low-orbiting, and can be sent into space for much less than their predecessors, and can be replaced far more quickly. The programme may result in live high-resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of the RAF’s fighter jet fleet, providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness.
This signals that the RAF will be into the space domain, trying to keep up with evolving threats that go beyond Earth’s orbit.
The UK is already a giant in the small satellite industry, with Surrey Satellite Technology owning approximately 40% of the global market share.
However, the Ministry of Defence has repeatedly postponed the release of its official Space Strategy. It will likely emerge in the coming months as the project takes shape.
Read more about the future of spaceflight, or learn why China wants to go to the dark side of the moon.