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UK to splash another £1.4bn on protecting non-existent 'national interests in space'

But what of the domestic launchers?

Updated The UK government is to spend an extra £1.4bn on space defence on top of the £5bn allocated to upgrade the Skynet satellite communication system.

The Defence Space Strategy, intended to "bolster our national interests in space," according to the UK's Ministry of Defence, was accompanied by a speech from Chief of the Air Staff Sir Mike Wigston in which the usual bogeymen were trotted out.

"Russia and China have tested anti-satellite weapons creating debris fields that will linger for decades," warned Wigston, adding: "Russian satellites continually make close approaches to other satellites, what we call rendezvous and proximity operations, possibly an indication of espionage activity, or possibly rehearsing something much more sinister."

And the Middle Kingdom? "China seeks to become the world's pre-eminent space power by 2045, an aspiration supported by its developments in cyber, electromagnetic and kinetic systems that potentially could threaten other users in space."

Strangely, Wigston did not mention the anti-satellite activities carried out by India or the United States.

As for the new cash, £968m is going on a multi-satellite programme dubbed "ISTARI" to support surveillance and intelligence for military operations. Perhaps somebody in the MoD has been spending a bit too much time with Tolkien.

Another £61m is going on laser communications technology. A demonstrator called MINERVA (on which work has already started) will snaffle £127m and develop a satellite network capable of collecting and disseminating data aimed at supporting frontline military forces.

While no date was slapped on MINERVA, the investment will be over four years. ISTARI's cash will be spread over 10 years.

It was not immediately clear what else the £1.4bn will be spent on. Presumably not the wallpaper at MoD Headquarters.

While the strategy was big on satellites and research and development, scant attention was paid to actually getting the spacecraft into orbit.

Volodymyr Levykin, boss of Edinburgh-based Skyrora, commended the Ministry of Defence for "articulating a strategic vision" but cautioned that "greater engagement and investment is needed from the UK government to ensure that sovereign launch capabilities become a reality."

"Currently," he said, "the UK could benefit from shifting its focus from the direction of space in the US to the potential on its own soil."

"In reality, the current investment does not accurately reflect the promise of the UK space industry and where it will be in 2032.

"Most importantly, spacetech companies in the UK need to understand how they can engage with the government on these projects and gain traction. In order for this strategy to be a success, the government simply must look beyond academic institutions to enable commercial entities to succeed and allow the UK's space industry to flourish." ®

Updated to add:

"If you're wondering just how that £1.4bn (over a 10-year period) is going to be spent, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence gave The Register the following breakdown:

  • Space Domain Awareness (SDA): £85m
  • Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR): £970m
  • Space Command and Control: £135m
  • Space Control: £145m

By our reckoning, that's still a bit shy of the final figure, but hey – what's a few million between government departments.

Speaking yesterday, Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin also noted that investments would not necessarily be capped at £1.4bn either.

As for launching spacecraft, the spokesperson went on: "MOD supports the BEIS and UKSA-led launch programme with security and defence advice and considerations. We are looking at options to support the wider government ambition to have private companies launch from the UK this year.

"Though we will not develop our own independent launch systems, we will continue to support the UKSA in the advancement of UK-based space launch activities, both vertical and horizontal, and work closely with our allies and partners to assure appropriate and timely access to space."

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