Experts in the space industry arguably see it as a shared sector. After all, space doesn’t belong to any one nation. This mentality is perhaps most evident in the collaborative nature of many of the most notable modern space projects.
But why is international collaboration so crucial in the space industry, and what are the benefits of working together on research projects? Let’s take a look.
The most important reason for collaboration is the sharing of resources and expertise. Resources could range from the actual raw materials needed to produce spacecraft to project resources, such as launch sites, ground networks, production facilities, and more.
The same is valid for expertise. There are numerous nations (such as the UK) that, until recently, haven’t had the infrastructure to launch space missions. Regardless, the UK is a global name in space expertise and has had a hand in many successful projects.
Similarly, sharing expertise on space projects helps minimise the duplication of experiments. While this will still happen, mainly due to the level of competition between some nations, it at least prevents those working collaboratively from conducting the same research.
But international collaboration also means access to different technologies. This is most evident in projects where one nation might have a well-established private sector, whereas another might have a well-funded public space sector. We might see, for example, the European Space Agency collaborating with a private company like SpaceX to make projects more viable.
Importantly, though, shared research and resources also mean shared risk. This means no single entity is on the hook for the financial impact of a failed or delayed project. Risk-sharing also helps international reputations. While reputation might not be top of everyone’s list in an international space project, it’s certainly an important consideration when it comes to future collaborations.
The benefits of sharing resources, expertise and risk should be fairly obvious. Arguably the biggest is cost sharing and, by extension, increased economic benefits. Space research can be expensive, but it also helps countries build highly-skilled economic sectors that can then be transferred to other industries.
Similarly, there are the benefits of increased scientific discovery and international cooperation. The International Space Station is a prime example of historically-competitive nations (e.g., Russia and the US) working together on a significant space research project.
There are plenty of other recent examples of these benefits in action. Take the Galileo satellite navigation system, which was established by the ESA and had components built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and Airbus Defence and Space, among others.
Similarly, the ExoMars programme – run by the ESA – features Airbus Defence and Space as its lead builder. The wheels and suspension systems of rovers come from the Canadian company MDA Corporation.
The British branch of the Italian spaceflight company, Telespazio has been working alongside the UK Space Agency for several years on Earth observation missions. The collaborative mission also features involvement from the Netherlands and France, and its overall goal is to improve data collection and quality for the advancement of New Space.
But this project sets the tone for a 2020 research grant initiative from the UK Space Agency. It's £5 million in funding is specifically for international projects with countries such as France, Japan, the US and Australia. The projects will cover everything from Earth observation to managing space debris.
Our growing interest in complex space missions will only grow our international collaboration in this sector. As more private companies get involved in New Space, thanks to the commercial availability of launches and resources, we’ll likely see far more international collaborations in the coming decades.