Future uses of space out to 2050

Global communication network concept network dots surrounding planet earth with focus on America. Information exchange via satellites, illustration by Thomas/Adobe Stock

Thomas/Adobe Stock

To support the UK's National Space Strategy and ensure that it is more ‘future proof’, researchers recommend the UK work more closely with allies, foster innovation, and more.

What is the issue?

Recent years have witnessed major changes in how humans are utilising space. Access to and use of space has become essential to modern digital society and many aspects of everyday life. The number of space-related activities conducted by government, military and commercial actors around the world is increasing.

This second ‘space race’ brings both threats and opportunities to the UK’s economy, security, interests, values and way of life. To navigate this landscape of threats and opportunities, the UK has launched a National Space Strategy outlining how it will build on its national capabilities, international partnerships, and expertise in government, industry and the scientific community to promote new benefits from the use of space and related services.

How did we help?

To support development of the National Space Strategy, the UK Space Agency asked researchers from RAND Europe’s Centre for Futures and Foresight Studies and the RAND Space Enterprise Initiative to explore the possible future uses of space out to 2050, as well as to identify potential ‘game-changers’ and the implications for the UK space sector. The RAND team examined how the way people use space will change, who the key actors in space will be and how well placed the UK is to address future opportunities in the space economy.

What did we find?

The space economy is about much more than rockets and satellites; it is a broad ecosystem of space-based and terrestrial markets, activities and users. Projections for the future of space reflect the multi-stakeholder nature of the space economy and the growing integration of space-based and terrestrial activities. Significant change is expected both in the upstream segment – activities related to sending spacecraft and satellites into space – and downstream segment – activities using space data to offer products, services and ground segment applications.

Out to 2050, the upstream segment of the space economy may experience both incremental and transformative changes as a result of new trends. Examples include development, adoption and adaptation of new and emerging technologies, evolving concepts for space flight and operations, and the application of new design and manufacturing techniques, including ‘Industry 4.0’.

Future downstream markets could encompass a variety of space, hybrid and terrestrial activities and end users. Researchers identified around 200 potential use cases and organised these into 15 clusters, comprising:

  • Agriculture
  • Climate and environmental protection
  • Construction, repair and engineering
  • Defence, security and safety
  • Energy
  • Extractive industries
  • Finance and commerce
  • Health, medicine and pharmaceuticals
  • Illicit activities
  • Logistics
  • Manufacturing
  • Science, research and education
  • Telecommunications
  • Tourism, culture and entertainment
  • Transport

Various socio-technological enablers and barriers could affect the evolution of upstream and downstream markets up to 2050. Important enablers include technological innovation, as well as falling launch costs and commercialisation. Conversely, regulatory and socio-cultural factors represent prominent barriers for the future development of the space economy. Whether the UK and others prove able to find ways of overcoming these obstacles will determine whether the ‘space race’ continues at its current frenetic pace.

Development of new markets and use cases may render the space sector increasingly inseparable from the wider economy by 2050, with space technologies (e.g., the Global Positioning System) already a vital part of our day-to-day lives.

What can be done?

To help ensure a more ‘future proof’ space strategy there is a need for the UK to:

  • Consider the increasing convergence between space and all other sectors of the wider economy, as well as the merging between multiple technologies, markets and use cases.
  • Work with partners and allies to foster a deeper understanding of competition and collaboration in space and maximise influence over the future direction of an increasingly ‘congested, contested and competitive’ space domain.
  • Deepen understanding of the UK’s unique strengths and ‘value proposition’ as a potential partner for other government, military, commercial and civil actors in space.
  • Continuously foster innovation and the capacity of space-related organisations to leverage new concepts or technologies that may increase the agility, adaptability, competitiveness and resilience of the UK space sector.