OT Interviews: Five Questions with UKSA’s Andrew Kuh28th Oct 2022
This week, Orbital Today continues its “Five Questions With…” interview series with UK Space Agency’s Space Exploration Technology Manager Andrew Kuh. To shoehorn this interview into five questions, we’ll have to manipulate the formatting. Do not attempt to adjust your screen…
What’s really important for the UK regarding the upcoming Artemis and Virgin Orbit launches?
JH: From a UK space industry standpoint, is the Cornwall launch actually more important than what’s happening out in Florida with the planned Artemis launch?
AK: That is a good question. I mean they are different. Obviously they’re completely different; they both involved launching a rocket, but they’re completely separate activities. And I think that both are really exciting for different reasons. So the UK launch is getting going and after our several decades hiatus from launch; as a country this is a hugely significant moment. And I think that conceptually, for the UK to step into this arena, is a massive deal.
That’s quite exciting for the industry and I think will rightly garner quite a lot of public attention. But then returning humans to the moon, and this being the first step in doing that and the UK having a role to play in that is likewise very exciting when you kind of step back and look at the bigger picture. So don’t make me pick a favorite.
JH: I think you just mentioned there that the UK does have a role to play. Now I know that Goonhilly will be doing a lot of the communications. Outside of that, how else or what else is the UK doing on this launch in particular?
AK: Yes, I mean the ultimate answer is we don’t have a huge role. But it is just one launch in what’s going to be a program spanning the next decade or more, and we will participate quite significantly in other bits of lunar exploration for both institutional and commercial missions. For example on the gateway, the refueling element for the Lunar Gateway will be built in the UK, led by TAS [Thales Alenia Space, ed.], which is quite a significant component if you think about the whole architecture of lunar exploration. And I think in some of the commercial missions, there’s many opportunities opening up.
There’s going to be so much exploration of the Moon in the coming decade, and I think industrially, scientifically, there’s a huge role for the UK to play there. And I think it’s quite symbolic, actually, that a month or two ago, NASA held their an international workshop on their whole Moon to Mars objectives and they chose to hold that workshop in London. Now that in itself you know, that’s nice. We held a meeting, but I think symbolically that’s really important showing that we do have a role to play as part of the international community because it’s not going to be just the US returning to the moon and it’s the whole world really.
JH: Regarding the the Cornwall launch, I’ve seen some sniping from corners saying that this really isn’t truly a British launch, that after the launch, Cosmic Girl and the team go back and it’s really an American thing happening on UK soil.
But my question would actually be what stays behind after they go? I mean, there is now the satellite integration unit at Spaceport Cornwall. But beyond that, what could you point to?
AK: So I mean to address the first part of the question. Yes, it’s a US launch vehicle. And obviously the Launcher One vehicle was built in California, but everything we do in space involves an element of international collaboration. So, there’s going to be some critiquing and I quite like seeing the competition that is building in the commercial launch sector and that’s part of the reason we set up our launch program in the way we did, it’s not one government owned entity or one government directed entity doing everything to do with launch.
Actually we’ve said, “Hey, we’re going to make it safe and legal. It’s over to the industry now to make this work, because that is the demand that we were hearing from industry 8-10 years ago.” So we’ve made that possible.
And that means, ‘fantastic, if the US launchers want to come over here. Use our services!’ and then they are welcome to do so.
However, we have also put money into funding UK based companies, so there will be some genuine competition there, which is I think ultimately good for everyone and particularly good for the UK industry. And in terms of the benefit it brings Cornwall, Virgin isn’t just going to come over and do one launch campaign and then fly off again. They have made a commitment to Cornwall and there’s multiple things happening down there. It’s not my program area, so I probably shouldn’t extend my praise too much, but I’ve been really impressed by the level of commitment I’ve seen demonstrated to working in Cornwall.
And there’s the ambitions of Spaceport Cornwall and the engagement they have with the local community for STEM. If you’re going to be launching stuff to space from Cornwall, just the attention, local and national, that will bring on that area is significant and they’ve got some really good plans on how to harness that for education but also for new highly skilled jobs. Cornwall Airport is quite an important local transport link. But if they can diversify what they’re doing at Cornwall Airport then that’s that’s good for everyone.
The UK and the infrastructure of launch
JH: Outside of the actual launch itself, outside of the airport grounds or spaceport grounds rather, what else? Does it spring up a cottage industry for manufacturing fairings or connectors for satellites to things? Does it expand the industry very much?
AK: It could do. I think that we’ll have to wait and see on a lot of those things. And I mean this is kind of the nature of the commercial launch market, right? There’s lots of different business models. So the key thing which these air launch systems offer is flexibility and responsiveness. And their key benefit I think. As to how exactly the market pans out, I think it’s yet to be seen. Noone’s really set up a launch program like we’ve got in the UK before because it has always been institutionally directed in every other country. And what we did was start with a blank sheet of paper. So I think there definitely will be benefits, whether it’s, I can’t tell you now, whatever component X or widget Y will suddenly be built in Totnes instead of in California. But it certainly opens those opportunities.
What about the UK and space exploration?
H: On a different tack, the UK’s expertise with satellite building is pretty well known. It’s a calling card, but when it comes to space exploration in particular, there are a few things like, say, Goonhilly Earth Station for deep space communications, things like that. But where else is the UK a leader in this? Because it doesn’t really seem to come up so clearly in the media. What else does the UK specialize in or have some unique capacities in when it comes to space exploration in particular?
AK: Ah, that is my day job. I have on and off been working on exploration for quite a while now. And I mean robotics is the thing we’ve always excelled in. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rosalind Franklin Rover, which is due to was due to be launched to Mars around now. I actually saw the Rover myself in a clean room recently, folded up, ready for shipping, which was quite a bittersweet thing to see.
And this was in the same week it was due originally due to be launched from Kazakhstan. Nonetheless the scientific questions that Franklin was going to address are still valid. They were exciting scientific questions 20 years ago when it was twinkling in the eye of some scientific group. And they will be just as valid in 10 years time because nobody has or is planning to drill two meters below the Martian surface. And the samples you can collect by doing so will be uniquely valuable. So, that’s really exciting.
To have that Rover built in Stevenage, I think is a real good demonstration of British capabilities in robotics and autonomous systems. So that’s quite exciting, but there’s a whole range of things in exploration. I think it’s going to be quite an interesting decade in terms of pending decisions in November at the ESA Council of Ministers. We should see increased investment in a whole range of enabling technologies in areas like in situ resource utilization, which is something which we’ve been putting some national funding into as well, different technologies for acquiring those resources you’ll need for longer term exploration of of the Moon and Mars in particular.
Also, things like nuclear power systems for space, this is one area where the UK could potentially play a huge role just because of the legacy of our nuclear engineering capability. And one thing that every mission needs is power, particularly as you’re going to areas where you can’t rely on solar power for one reason or another, to have the reliable radioisotope power systems.
This is necessary and at the moment there’s only a couple of sources for that, well, Russia and the US, really. So if the UK can step in and also offer that, not just to ESA, but potentially to other countries or or commercial missions, and then that could be a really exciting area for us. So we’ve done a bit of research and studies into that over the past ten years and I’d expect that there’s going to be increasing potential for us to play a quite significant role.
Where are the next revolutions?
H: Let’s go into my favorite question. Over the course of the last, say, 20 years, rocketry has been democratized. Software-defined everything technologies has replaced hardware from components to entire racks of stuff. What do you see as the next breakthrough for space tech for the space industry? Is it actually the power plants? Or is there something else coming up?
AK: Yes. Well, as I said about nuclear power systems, I think they, and there’s the radioisotope power systems which I think will be really, well, necessary, frankly, for any kind of planetary surface exploration but also for nuclear propulsion. That could be a game changer, which we see development on in the next 10-20 years and because if you can significantly reduce your your transfer times to other planetary bodies, then obviously that solves a lot of the challenges.
So, that’s one area I’m particularly excited about. And I think on that agenda as well, I mentioned briefly before, but I think we’re just at the start of putting together this whole chain of technologies you need to actually sustain life on other planets. It’s amazing what was done with Apollo there and back, but to go there and stay, whether it’s for weeks or months, that completely transforms what you can do. The significance of moving from more of just a quick sortie to maybe something more akin to how we explore Antarctica or other remote regions on Earth. In terms of human exploration that’s going to be massive.
JH: In terms of looking at now starting to actually stay there for a longer time, you’ve got some plants being grown and harvested on the International Space Station. Is there anything that the UK can offer in the juncture of agriculture and space? Have you seen anything along that line?
AK: There’s been a bit of research and fairly fundamental research into plant biology in the UK, and it’s not something we’ve played an awful lot in, to be honest with you. Not that I’m aware of, anyway.
JH: So they’re not going to be growing any hops. I mean, where’s the bitter coming from?
AK: Well, exactly. And I know there have been experiments with distilling whiskey on the ISS, which you know, I strongly support. Perhaps it’s maybe not the first priority. I mean, in our life sciences community more broadly, it’s quite an obvious area where we already have this thriving life sciences community in the UK. We are one of the world leaders. I know everyone says that the UK’s a world leader in all manner of things these days, but genuinely in life sciences it isn’t a controversial thing to say.
And also our space engineering and growing investment in space. I think there’s huge potential there for us to do more in astronaut healthcare and technologies to keep human beings alive and well in extended duration missions. That’s everything from telemedicine to in situ monitoring of astronaut health. We’ve got some interesting technologies there we can contribute.
So, I think that’s one area we can do a lot, but also things like drug discovery using the microgravity environment, to investigate pharmaceutical processes and in space, it’s something where there’s been a kernel of interest over the last 10 years. But I think as access to space gets cheaper and it becomes more viable for companies doing industrial research, not just fundamental academic research, and as we see new commercial space stations coming online, I think there’s going to be a big increase in that. So I would predict that we’ll see a significant uptake in the UK of Life Sciences research in space in the next decade.
Is it sustainability or sustainabilities?
JH: World Space Week focused on science and space and sustainability this year. Is there a place for government in this, either from promoting investments in some ways or changing regulation?
AK: Yes, I think it’s important that the government does play a role in a few different ways. But the first thing, whenever anyone mentions sustainability, the first thing I ask is “What do you mean by that?” Because this is interpreted differently by everybody who promotes it and everybody who kind of supports it. And so it’s quite important to make sure everyone is on the same page when you talk about it. So if we’re talking about sustainability of the space environment itself, then I think you can see the UK’s already playing a huge role and we’re really certain of the agenda and a lot of the international forums discussing about making sure that space is sustainable not just for the next few years, but for future generations as well. So in terms of policy, it’s around trying to set norms on an international level and and regulate it on a domestic level, which is critically important. And doing that in a proportionate way as well, but then also investing in the technology. So investing in the R&D which is needed to, say, safely remove debris from orbit.
Then there’s the other side of the coin when we’re talking about sustainability, namely, sustainability on Earth. And thinking about things like the goals for sustainable development and I think we can see in multiple fields where space has a role to play in that. Then, closer to my heart, there’s looking at the sustainable exploration of other planetary bodies.
We’ve got to make sure when we’re going back to the Moon and to Mars that we do it in a sustainable way. And when I say that, I’m talking about longer duration missions. I think it’s quite important that we can do that, but that we do it in a responsible way as well.
We talk about sites of Special Scientific Interest on on Earth, right? Well, there is no site of greater scientific interest in my mind than the entire lunar surface and the entire Martian surface. In other words, making sure we we protect that and that all actors up there are doing it in a responsible and coordinated way.
JH: If you’re asking for definitions from people, what would be your definition of responsible lunar exploitation be?
AK: I wish I could tell you a succinct and agreed definition of that right now, and but I think the Artemis Accords actually provide a really positive framework for this. There was quite a lot of discussion when they were published, right? And in the space community, particularly in the space law world, I think that it was actually quite a pragmatic attempt, recognizing the getting of legally abiding, legally binding agreements through the UN and the Committee for Peaceful Use of Outer Space.
Getting any legally binding agreements through that is challenging at times. Actually, we saw with the Artemis Accords a really pragmatic solution by the US saying ‘here’s how we intend to in complete accordance with existing international law, explore the moon.’
Everyone’s welcome to sign up to these accords and I thought that was actually quite a helpful approach and we were one of the first signatories to those accords. But they’re by no means the whole picture. A lot is going to have to be worked out as we see what the reality of new lunar exploration looks like.
They give a really good starting point, so that everyone’s at least on the same page. At least everyone that’s signed up to them is on the same page, and even those who haven’t signed up to it can see how other countries are intending to to explore the Moon. So I think that’s a good starting point and you have to have these rules written down at some point, and it’s never easy and it’s always a bit messy finalizing them. But I think that’s actually quite a positive starting point and a more practical way to go than implementing any great new kind of international treaties on the matter.
As to what ‘responsible’ looks like, we obviously have planetary protection guidelines which are pretty well established already, which define how to ensure you’re not taking any new biological material and bringing any biological material back to Earth as well. Or, if you are, then to make sure it’s properly encapsulated and so it’s in both directions, which is really important.
I’m thinking out loud now, but I think there’s I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting debates in the coming years about how exactly to phrase it. We have these discussions informally with scientists, engineers, people from other agencies, pretty much every time we get to get together. We were just out for dinner with a bunch of people from other agencies a few weeks ago, and we were just talking about this informally. Everyone agrees more or less on the principles. The devil is going to be in the details of how we then define and, if necessary, enforce them. But you know, it’s going to be an exciting decade for lawyers as well as for the engineers and scientists.
Orbital Today would like to thank Andrew Kuh for taking the time to share his vision with us.