02 February, 2021

Ditchley conference on Space: the new space race and its intersection with power, the rules-based order and the economy - January 2021

The first conference of 2021 was on ‘The new space race and its intersection with power, the rules-based order and the economy’.  Held virtually during the UK’s third lockdown but making the most of the connectivity that virtual affords, the conference brought together expertise in space technologies, satellites, research, governance, law, and commercial applications of space technology from around the world. This included Australia, China, Japan, India, Europe, Russia, the Philippines and the United States and with representation from a number of space agencies including from Canada, China, the European and UK space agencies and from commercial stations, space-tech companies using earth observation and other satellite applications.  Multilateral organisations such as the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs were also represented. 

A revolution in the space sector underway. The speed and scale of change has been dramatic with a huge increase in the number of countries and private sector companies developing interests in space. This growth, driven in part by the miniaturisation of satellites and low-cost launches, has allowed new entrants and a proliferation of applications particularly from the use of satellites.  This ‘revolution’ has already changed society and has the potential to drive further economic change and to deliver benefits.  

Earth observation and data sets from space are expected to play an important part in understanding and monitoring the impacts of climate change.  COP26 is a moment to take forward earth observation capabilities in the service of climate goals and in tackling threats to the ocean and the environment.   

But the growth in activity in space has brought huge risks. The increase in space debris – the junk left by humans in space – and the escalation of unmanaged space traffic could jeopardise the gains that technology and space development offer. The common metaphor of space as a final frontier, we were told, was wrong and damaging. Near space is as much a part of the planet as the oceans and the atmosphere and much like these other environmental domains, space is becoming ever more polluted.  

Governments have a role to play as investors and regulators. The dependence of modern society on space infrastructure means its future must be secured by the application of better practice, standards, rules and regulation. There was a clear call to move from competition towards cooperation, with more international debate, inclusive of emerging space nations and between the US and China.  With the obstacles fully acknowledged, the opportunities for collaboration post-Brexit between the UK and the various European space institutions began to be explored: new partnerships over security, education and research, it seems, are within reach. 

The Director’s Note from this conference will follow shortly.  

Ditchley’s February conference is Climate judo: how can the impact of the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis be turned into effective action on climate change?