Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 2.4 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Questions

  1. How might the emerging technology areas identified in the UK Government's S&T Framework (a) intersect with capability development for the space domain, and (b) shape the sector's evolution out to 2040 in terms of both opportunities and risks?
  2. What is the potential impact of these developments on how the UK regulates the implementation of new technologies for space and where are there regulatory gaps or dilemmas to be addressed?
  3. What might the UK do to address these regulatory gaps or dilemmas and overcome these obstacles to fully leverage the space sector and contribute to wider UK prosperity?

Governments, economies and societies worldwide are increasingly dependent on space for positioning, navigation, timing (PNT), satellite communications (SATCOM), Earth observation (EO) and meteorological services. The size of the space sector is growing rapidly, in part through the emergence of major private actors (e.g., SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc.) and the so-called NewSpace economy. Increased competition and innovation have driven down launch costs per kilogram of mass, while also promoting miniaturisation and better performance of satellites and their onboard components. These trends, in turn, are making it both technically and financially feasible to unlock new use cases and applications from space technology. At the same time, space experts and policy makers have raised concern about the increasingly 'congested, contested, and competitive' nature of the space domain.

This report summarises the findings of a RAND Europe study into the intersection of key emerging technologies with the space domain, both now and out to 2040. This was undertaken in support of a review by the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and the Regulatory Horizons Council, into the future of space regulation policy.

The study considers the implications of projected future technology trends for the development of novel space capabilities and applications, both in upstream and downstream markets – while acknowledging that the pace, direction and wider externalities of such developments will also be shaped by non-technological factors, including regulation. This report investigates the possible use cases and implications of technologies such as AI, autonomy and robotics, telecommunications, quantum, engineering biology, semiconductors, energy and propulsion, novel materials, and advanced manufacturing.

This study aims to illustrate the sorts of trade-offs and dilemmas that technology may pose for future space regulation policy, as the UK seeks to strike a balance between mitigating risk and, at the same time, maximising opportunity (e.g., to deliver broad societal and economic benefits and support delivery of other policy goals through promotion of a vibrant and competitive space sector). 

Key Findings

  • Emerging technologies and capabilities have the potential to transform uses of space, both incrementally through offering improvements on existing technologies, and more radically, by enabling entirely new capabilities, use cases and markets. These technologies could enhance decision making and analytics, improve connectivity and data transmission, and bolster security and productivity, while unlocking opportunities for space exploration and scientific discovery.
  • Emerging technologies and capabilities may pose opportunities for the UK, by driving new technological use cases, economic growth and diplomatic opportunities. However, the shortage of suitably qualified and experienced personnel (SQEP) in the UK space sector and fierce competition with other nations could limit realisation of benefits, while increased militarisation of space and proliferation of debris could pose threats to UK capabilities.
  • Resolving any regulatory gaps and areas of friction or confusion would help encourage investment into the UK space sector, and pursuit of novel missions and revenue streams. At the same time, industry's desire to move quickly will need to be balanced against safety and environmental concerns, amongst other dilemmas.
  • The UK is in a good position to leverage innovative mechanisms such as regulatory sandboxes, as well as employing strategic foresight methods and new tools such as AI to assist with more agile development of regulation fit for a fast-changing sector.
  • 'Hard' regulation is only one of a wider set of levers that the UK Government can use to help shape the future of space governance, both at home and globally, so as to gain a competitive advantage while avoiding a regulatory race to the bottom. 'Soft' policy levers include guidance and multi-stakeholder groups to discuss issues and ideal policies, which can be used by regulators to address concerns and develop solutions.
  • If the UK is to deliver on its ambition to be a genuine thought leader on space regulation, this implies a need for regulators to have access to funding, talent, technology, and organisational processes and culture that enable continuous learning and adaptation, and the absorption of innovation. This includes innovation both in terms of the novel space capabilities to be regulated, and of the cutting-edge regulatory approaches that the UK uses to shape the evolution of this fast-moving sector in its favour.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT) and conducted by RAND Europe.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit www.rand.org/pubs/permissions.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.