Space technologies are taking off in the UK, alongside other emerging technologies like quantum computing. “I don’t think there’s a way we can do comprehensive space research and travel, if you like, without quantum technology,” explains Simon Phillips, chief technology officer at Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC). “It’s just too much to calculate.”
“I think it’ll be very soon that when we talk about space technology it will always include quantum,” says Phillips. Enabling space technology to include quantum, he explains, involves “building ground-based systems that are capable of processing lots and lots of quantum information in ways that we never knew were possible before.”
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. Solving the issue of space debris is an area that might sound trite, but, as Phillips notes, “it’s actually a bit of a problem.” Quantum, he explains, can model space debris removal “hundreds and hundreds” of years into the future.
Longer term, quantum technologies could enhance our understanding of how people may be affected by their time in space. “We have data on Mars, and we have data on humans, but we don’t have an understanding of the interaction between those environments,” says Phillips. With quantum, he says, “we could work out how to protect people working in space,” something he considers to be a critical issue.
Building a collaborative startup ecosystem
As applications of quantum computing in space continue to grow, so too does the UK’s space startup ecosystem.
Space Forge, for example, is developing a manufacturing hub that will travel in and out of Earth’s atmosphere. They will only produce goods in space that lead to a net positive benefit on the ground, says Western. He notes the various advantages of working within space, including a purified environment, lower pressure, extreme temperatures, and reduced carbon emissions. “You can access plus or minus 250°C,” he says.
Meanwhile, radiation rays from the sun could be employed for lithography in making semiconductors. Despite sounding like something straight out of science fiction, “all the technologies that are essential for this already exist,” says Western.
Another notable UK 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, which will enable safe, sustainable space exploration. Its technology’s applications include collision avoidance, debris removal, and constellation management.