Launch of the Position Paper: Why Space? The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation

The ‘Why Space?’ Working Group has launched its position paper, detailing the opportunities for materials science in Space, and the benefits that will be derived from these advances.  The paper, produced with the assistance of the Satellite Applications Catapult, is the culmination of over a year of engagement with the Space and materials communities and was enabled by support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

‘Why Space? The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation.’

Why Space?

The global use of advanced materials, including composites and alloys, in Space industry technologies, from launch vehicles to satellites, amounts to approximately £1.2 billion annually. In line with the growth trajectories of the Space sector over the next decade, the value of advanced materials in the Space industry will expand threefold, reaching an estimated £4 billion by the year 2035. Additionally, as discussed extensively in the ‘Why Space?’ position paper, emerging microgravity research and orbital engineering platforms are poised to open new opportunities for materials R&D in Space. The value of R&D, utilising orbital platforms, to develop next-generation semiconductor materials alone, could reach a value of £150-300 million each year, by the early 2030s according to McKinsey & Company.

The UK’s Space economy is enjoying rapid growth and actively developing its own launch capabilities. Building on our world-leading expertise in materials science and related R&D, this position paper provides a cohesive case for funders on the opportunity for discovery and applied level research through involvement with Space. It aims to support exploration roadmaps from leaders in agencies, industry and academia, to better understand the possibilities for new research and innovation, and how the UK will secure its targeted share of the market.

Dr Philip Carvil, Coordinator of the working group for the Position Paper – ‘Why Space? The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation’ said: 

“With the increased capacity in Space access, through the ongoing development of a robust Space launch and Space provider ecosystem, there is the opportunity to bring the expertise in the materials community closer to the opportunity that the Space environment provides.

With the publication of this paper, it is our hope that the authored insights shared, and collective recommendations made within, can support leadership, particularly here in the UK in Space exploration activities, as well as research and commercialisation opportunities for new products and applications in key sectors, including Life Sciences, Advanced Manufacturing, Defence & Security, Energy & Net Zero and more.”

John Abbott, CEO of the Satellite Applications Catapult said: 

“The development of in-orbit processing of materials and the manufacture of new products, many of which simply cannot be made on Earth, will create significant opportunities for UK organisations at home and in the global economy.

Working alongside other agencies, we are bringing industry and academia together to advance the development of materials science in orbit and grow this emerging sector. We are positioning the UK as a world-leader in the field, and this is exactly the type of high-risk, high-reward area in which the Catapults excel.

Congratulations to the ‘Why Space?’ team on the paper published today – the Catapult and other agencies will continue to nurture and champion such innovations, building the UK’s capability and our share of this growing global market.”

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency said:

“Advanced materials are the building blocks of an innovative society, and the space sector can make a significant contribution by developing, researching and testing new materials using the unique environment of microgravity. This already happens on the International Space Station, and there are huge opportunities for the UK associated with future space stations as well as dedicated satellites and spacecraft.

This important paper explores these opportunities and considers a number of areas where government, academia and various industrial sectors can work together to make the most of them.”

The Opportunities

Materials science is an extremely broad field that allows us to understand the formation, structure, and properties of materials from the atomic to the microscopic and macroscopic.

By studying the effects of gravity on the properties and behaviour of fluid and solid systems, scientists are developing new manipulation strategies and materials in Space with properties or functionalities that cannot be achieved in normal gravity conditions. This will inform the development of the next generation of advanced materials with superior physicochemical properties to support future Space exploration as well as revolutionising established processes on Earth, including design and manufacturing.

In-orbit materials science is helping to address key challenges for space exploration such as in-situ resource utilisation – developing innovative, closed-loop processing cycles that make the most of limited resources in Space. It also tackles issues cited in terrestrial strategic R&D roadmaps, such as increasing the efficiency and capacity of novel semi-conductor manufacturing.

What next?

The paper is now available to download and can be shared widely.

To celebrate this launch, a community event will take place on the 15 March 2024 at the Henry Royce Institute in Manchester, UK – the UK’s National institute for Advanced Materials Research and Innovation. This event will bring together materials scientists, experts in Space access and in-orbit manufacturing, and representatives from a range of industry sectors to discuss the paper, its recommendations and the next steps.

Sharing the latest developments in Materials Research and Innovation is an opportunity of international importance, key in addressing Space exploration goals. For the first time the UK will be hosting the Biennial Symposium of the European Low Gravity Research Association (ELGRA). Jointly organised with the UK’s Space Academic Network (SPAN), the conference will take place in Liverpool, 3-6th September 2024 inviting researchers in academia, industry and government agencies to share the latest developments in space-related research, innovation and policy (including materials science).