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Amplifying space’s

potential with quantum

The UK’s space economy soars to newer heights, propelled by growing government support for emerging technologies like quantum computing.

The stars are aligned for accelerated growth in the UK’s space economy, thanks to an active venture capital community, close collaboration, and a government that’s increasingly cognizant of quantum computing’s potential. Already, startups in the home-grown space industry are pioneering research that demonstrates the sector’s cutting-edge and world-leading capabilities.

Just take aerospace Space Forge. The firm is developing a manufacturing hub that will travel in and out of Earth’s atmosphere to enable the novel production of semiconductors and alloys in microgravity. By working in space, it can benefit from a purified environment, lower pressure, and extreme temperatures. According to a BBC article, Space Forge is one of a number of companies worldwide vying to make valuable products in the weightless conditions experienced in space.

There’s also Eutelsat Group, which is the newly combined company of geostationary orbit (GEO)-operator Eutelsat and low-earth orbit (LEO)-operator OneWeb. The company operates the second-largest fleet of satellites in the world, making up 85% of all UK satellites in orbit. The company “is the world’s first GEO-LEO satellite operator with a satellite and ground network operations center based in London,” says Gareth Alston, director for UK government affairs at Eutelsat OneWeb.

To fuel growth of companies like Eutelsat Group in its space sector, the UK has committed £2.5 billion to developing quantum technologies, doubling its current investment as part of its new quantum strategy from 2024 to 2034. With quantum’s ability to exponentially increase computing power and revolutionize industries from health care to space, it offers countless possibilities that are yet to be explored.

The UK government has placed quantum technologies at the core of its mission to become a science and technology powerhouse. In its policy paper, National Space Strategy in Action, the government says it wants to build “one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world.”

The weight of space

Space technologies are critical in our everyday existence. Satellites orbiting 160 km above the Earth keep people connected, ensure national security, and allow scientists to analyze and forecast the impacts of climate change.

With the global space economy projected to reach £490 billion by 2030, the UK published its National Space Strategy in 2022 and the aforementioned National Space Strategy in Action in 2023. Both policy papers provide details of deliverable policies and products to nurture long-term confidence among commercial business and investors in the UK’s space industry.

Space: An ideal environment
for quantum technologies

What can space offer quantum computers that Earth cannot?

Compiled by MIT Technology Review Insights based on data from the Forbes Tech Council and NASA.

Worth over £16.4 billion per year, the space sector is a vital part of the UK’s economy, employing over 45,000 people across 1,590 companies. Its history stretches back to the 1940s when British engineers started exploring plans for a suborbital spacecraft. The UK is now globally renowned for its strengths in space manufacturing technologies, particularly spacecraft, highly complex payloads, and small satellites.

The UK’s space industry is backed by a strong scientific and academic community, with 23% of graduates in the country coming from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Space research is a dynamic, multidisciplinary area, and having graduates with diverse expertise—from robotics to physics and semiconductors —is crucial, given the vast applications this sector covers.

A matter of social equality

Beyond its ability to boost the UK’s economic and technological power, the space industry also plays a crucial, societal role. “Satellite internet connections enable people in rural or isolated regions to access online education, telemedicine, and employment opportunities,” Alston says. “By effectively shrinking the digital divide, satellite technology ensures that individuals in previously disconnected areas can join the digital age, fostering economic growth, social development, and improved quality of life for countless communities.”

Being the world’s first GEO-LEO satellite operator, Eutelsat OneWeb’s technologies are being used to drive connectivity around the world. “From connecting the previously unconnected locations like Papa Stour, Scotland, and Lundy Island, Devon to launching LEO-enabled banking services in South Africa, the company’s LEO services are helping bridge the digital divide in some of the hardest to reach locations,” Alston explains.

“By effectively shrinking the digital divide, satellite technology ensures that individuals in previously disconnected areas can join the digital age, fostering economic growth, social development, and improved quality of life for countless communities.” -Gareth Alston, director for government affairs, Eutelsat OneWeb

Quantum boost

As companies like Eutelsat Group continue to push boundaries in the space sector, advancements in quantum computing could act as an accelerant. In the near term, quantum technologies could assist space R&D efforts such as mission scheduling, materials discovery, and studies on how space travel affects the space environment. It could also crunch vast datasets simultaneously to evaluate and forecast multiple scenarios, such as analyzing data from telescopes or the properties of black holes.

The UK is well-positioned to convert such possibilities into reality. It is home to a thriving quantum industry with companies working across the spectrum of technologies. It has the most quantum startups in Europe and recorded US$ 979 million of investment from 2001 to 2021, placing second behind the U.S.

All support systems engaged

The UK government has bolstered the space and quantum industries with strong financial support. It pledged £1.84 billion in 2022 to fund space programs and initiatives, such as the UK-built Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover, scheduled to launch in 2028. A collaborative initiative led by the European Space Agency, the UK has played an integral role beyond funding the project to search for life on Mars. According to a November 2023 report by the BBC, a scientific instrument built in Wales will be fitted to the rover to identify the most promising rocks to drill and test for evidence of ancient biology.

Various government departments also offer backing to companies looking to innovate in the UK. For example, UK Research and Innovation facilitates fellowships, grants, and loans for companies engaged in space science and quantum technologies. In addition, the Department for Business and Trade’s sector specialists and investment experts are tasked with helping investors seamlessly expand their businesses in the UK—they even offer support after landing.

Raising the quantum factor

The National Quantum Technologies Programme, a £1 billion partnership between government, academia, and industry, was established in 2014 to nurture and commercialize quantum technologies. The initiative has four hubs based in universities across the UK, specializing in different areas, including communications, sensors and timing, enhanced imaging, and computing. So far, it has funded over 470 PhDs, attracted 120 industrial partners, and supported over 50 quantum startups.

In 2023, an additional £2.5 billion was allocated to support quantum technologies for the next decade as part of the National Quantum Strategy. Under the strategy, the government plans to create a network of research hubs, nurture accelerator programs to spur development and commercialization, and drive investment toward talent and training schemes.

Government support in the UK is helping the space and quantum industries thrive. At the same time, a well-developed startup ecosystem enables investors to contribute to scientific advances and breakthroughs. Such innovations could reverberate across other industries, given that breakthroughs in both sectors have historically led to progress in others.

With a strong scientific community, a track record of collaboration, and a globally renowned manufacturing base added into the mix, the UK’s burgeoning space and quantum industries have a solid foundation in place to ensure its continued success.

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