Space technologies are picking up steam in the UK alongside other emerging technologies such as quantum computing. “I don’t think we can do full-scale space exploration and travel, if you will, without quantum technology,” explains Simon Phillips, chief technology officer at Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC). “It’s just too much to calculate.”
“I think it’s going to be very soon that when we’re talking about space technology, we’re always going to involve quantum,” says Phillips. For space technology to incorporate quanta, he explains, it means “building ground-based systems capable of processing lots and lots of quantum information in ways we didn’t previously know was possible.”
In the short term, quantum technologies could support space research and development such as mission planning, material discovery, and studies of how space travel affects the space environment. Solving the space debris problem is an area that may sound corny, but, as Phillips notes, “it’s actually a small problem.” Quantum, he explains, can model space debris removal “hundreds and hundreds” of years into the future.
In the longer term, quantum technologies could improve our understanding of how people are affected by their time in space. “We have data on Mars and we have data on humans, but we don’t understand the interaction between those environments,” says Phillips. With quanta, he says, “we could figure out how to protect people working in space,” which he believes is a critical issue.
Building a collaborative startup ecosystem
As applications of quantum computing in space continue to grow, the UK space start-up ecosystem is also growing.
For example, Space Forge is developing a production center that will go in and out of Earth’s atmosphere. They will only produce goods in space that result in positive net utility on the ground, Western says. He points to the various benefits of working in space, including a cleaner environment, lower pressure, extreme temperatures and reduced carbon emissions. “You can access plus or minus 250 °C,” he says.
Meanwhile, the sun’s rays could be used for lithography in the manufacture of semiconductors. While it sounds like science fiction, “all the technology to do that is already there,” says Western.
Another notable British space startup is Lumi Space. With support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency, Lumi Space is building the world’s first global commercial satellite laser ranging service that will enable safe and sustainable space exploration. Applications of its technology include collision avoidance, debris clearance and constellation management.