Strong international relationships between researchers, institutions and industrial partners are vital to solving 21st Century global challenges. Collaboration pushes the boundaries of scientific knowledge, fuels innovation, and opens doors to new markets. Space is no exception, as the decade long UK-China space workshop exemplifies.
Space exploration is a goal in its own right, but scientists and industrialists all over the world are also investigating the potential for incredible technological advances to solve some of the greatest challenges we face here on Earth.
One such challenge is global food security, the ability to feed ourselves in the face of increasingly negative impacts from climate change and other environmental factors.
The issue will be one of many discussed by the 11th annual UK- China Space workshop, taking place in Shanghai. The theme for the workshop is ‘Opportunities’, and it provides an arena in which both countries can share opportunities for international cooperation. This year the conference is part of a UK showcase taking place ahead of the Pujiang Innovation Forum.
“Our ability and willingness to challenge preconceived ideas, to innovate and think around a problem, combined with China’s drive and commitment to a future in space, provides an ideal opportunity to develop incredible science and technology programmes together, ” says Dr Hugh Mortimer, of RAL Space, who believes there are many benefits to ongoing collaboration with China.
The differences between the UK and Chinese cultures are an advantage for scientific research, as different outlooks suggest novel uses for existing technology, and provide fertile ground for future research.
There has been academic collaboration in space science and technology between the UK and China for many years, formalised in 2005 by a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries. The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space is the driving force behind the annual UK-China workshops that has brought together more than 2000 space scientists, technologists and industrialists.
Dr Mortimer adds: “The workshop is about bringing people together from a range of academic and industrial backgrounds to build links and to build ideas. Those relationships then continue far beyond the annual three day conference.”
The UK and China share a commitment to developing space science and technology. Large-scale government investment in China has resulted in great advancements, with China one of only three countries to independently send humans into space. The UK is home to world-leading academic expertise, including RAL Space, and a growing space industry sector that currently employs 30,000 people, with an ambition to expand to 100,000 people by 2030. More than 80 UK companies are involved in space manufacturing.
According to Chris Bee, Head of Business Development for STFC, strengthening relationships creates wider opportunities: “Academic collaboration is opening doors for UK PLC in China, which can often be difficult due to the cultural differences between our two countries. With a common theme and a common goal, academic cooperation builds relationships and paves the way for further innovation opportunities.”
In the UK food security is a future challenge, but it is an immediate one for China, which has a population of 1.4 billion to feed. As a nation with a commitment to developing space science and technology, it’s no surprise that China is investigating the ways in which space science can help increase crop yields, and future-proof Chinese agriculture.
One current project is AgriRover, where researchers from the University of Strathclyde are working with partners in the UK and China to turn a rover developed for Mars exploration into a soil-monitoring system for use on Earth. AgriRover uses as robotic platform designed and built by RAL Space, together with a robotic arm and soil sensing instrumentation, to provide an autonomous agricultural monitoring system.
Funded by the UK Space Agency’s International Partnerships Space Programme (IPSP), the AgriRover is just one of the UK-China collaborations to arise from a the annual workshops that has built links between scientists, technologists and industrialists from 90 organisations, academic, government and industrial, in the UK and China.
Universities and companies are able to access expertise and logistical support for their joint projects through the UK-China Virtual Joint Space Laboratory, joint lab facilities provided by RAL Space and Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics (BUAA) that were established in 2007.
Here, based in the UK we have the Satellite Catapult created to foster growth across the economy through the exploitation of space. The Catapult brings invaluable resources, including expertise and new facilities, to enable the best businesses, researchers and end-users to work with the Catapult to develop new satellite-based products, services and applications.
The relationships continue to strengthen and participants at this week’s annual conference will be looking for further opportunities to push the boundaries of space technology and harness those advances for societal and economic benefit.