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Picture of a satellite over the Earth

Space-based assets are part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, and are important for civilian activities in many sectors, such as transport, finance and utilities. They are also central to military operations, for example, for surveillance, communications, navigation and ballistic missile detection. Disruption to satellite services has the potential to cause significant economic impacts. For instance, a study produced by the London Economics consultancy in 2017 estimated that a five-day disruption to global navigation satellites might cost the UK £5.2 billion.

In the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the UK Government outlined its plans to publish a national space strategy in 2021, which it says will establish an integrated approach across both military and civil space policy and will support the UK space sector. The Government has also said that it will publish a defence space strategy in 2021 (originally due in 2018). It has announced that over the next decade, it will invest £1.4 billion in developing the UK’s space capabilities, and approximately £5 billion in upgrading the SKYNET system of military communication satellites.

Key points:

  • Satellites have a number of functions, which give users access to navigation information, accurate timing signals, communications capability, and Earth and space observation.
  • These functions in turn, give rise to many applications. Within the military, satellites are used for targeting munitions, communications, navigation, and threat analysis, among other applications. Civilian applications include communications; navigation services used by road, rail and sea transport; and timing signals used for timestamping financial trades and operating energy networks such as the national grid.
  • Civilian users based in the UK can obtain some satellite services from UK providers, however they rely on other nations and international alliances for access to Earth observation and positioning, navigation and timing services.
  • The Ministry of Defence has an ongoing contract with Airbus Defence and Space to provide military communications satellites, however the UK largely relies on the US for other defence-related satellite services.
  • Satellites can be damaged or destroyed through unintentional or deliberate damage. Unintentional damage can be caused by space weather or collisions with space debris or other satellites. There are several types of anti-satellite weapons that might be used by hostile actors to intentionally disable, damage or destroy a satellite.
  • Strategies to help mitigate damage or disruption to satellite services include removing debris from orbit, setting up alternative terrestrial-based services, using technical defences to hinder attack, and developing space situational awareness, which uses ground-based radars and telescopes to create a map of the space environment.

Acknowledgements:

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Members of the POST board*

Ministry of Defence*

Allen Antrobus, Airbus Defence and Space

Dr Philippe Blondel, University of Bath

Dr Bleddyn Bowen, University of Leicester*

Professor Tat-Jun Chin, University of Adelaide

Professor John Culton, University of Adelaide

Mike Curtis-Rouse, Satellite Applications Catapult

Ralph ‘Dinz’ Dinsley, Northern Space and Security Ltd*

Chris Dunn, Meta Mission Data*

Professor Bryan Edwards, Science and Technology Facilities Council*

Robert Elliot, Science and Technology Facilities Council

Paul Febvre, Satellite Applications Catapult*

Jacob Geer, UK Space Agency*

Toby Harris, Astroscale*

Dr Mark Hilborne, Kings College London*

Dr Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne, University of Reading

Kaitlyn Johnson, Centre for Strategic and International Studies*

Kevin Mcloughlin, UK Space Agency

Professor Christopher Newman, Northumbria University*

Clive Oates, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd

Professor Alan Partridge, Science and Technology Facilities Council

James Pavur, University of Oxford*

Victoria Samson, Secure World Foundation*

Nicholas Smith, Lockheed Martin/UK Space

Ben Stern, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd*

Alexandra Stickings, Frazer-Nash Consultancy*

Professor Michael Webb, University of Adelaide

Dr Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation*

Tom Williams, Airbus Defence and Space

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.


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