Jul 25

Benefits of Using Space for UK Health and Life Science Research

Image credit: European Space Agency

For many years, the UK has been a world leader in both the Space and Health and Life Sciences sectors. While each sector exists independently as an integral industry, there already is an established and innovative relationship between the two. Through the UK’s initiative to grow a diverse space economy and to build itself as a sovereign launch provider, new opportunities have arisen to improve UK cross-sector collaboration for in-space health and life science research; opportunities that would have multiple benefits across scientific, economic, and societal fields. 

Through cross-sector collaboration, UK health and life science researchers, universities, and private and public institutions have frequently used both terrestrial and in-space platforms to conduct innovative research. Such research has spanned from studies in human physiology and adaptation in microgravity to studies of environmental and psychological effects via analogue missions. These opportunities have traditionally consisted of competing for agency funding and flight opportunities thereby limiting the frequency and accessibility of space-related research. Upcoming national and international space projects, however, could provide the UK with a chance to advance innovative health and life science research without these constraints. 

Through partaking in agency programs, including the NASA Artemis missions, ESA human spaceflight initiatives, and LaunchUK, the UK health and life sciences could achieve regular collaboration with the space sector. Through adopting commercial launch service providers such as Skyrora, SpaceX and Orbex (Fig. 1), the latter of which is poised to offer the first sovereign launch platform for UK-manufactured satellites, the UK would obtain lower cost and increased access to space research platforms. Increased access to space assets is essential to fast-track and deploy research programs and platforms both onboard the ISS and through independent orbital systems, through investment in UK-based companies such as Kayser Space and Space Forge, respectively. Each of these opportunities uniquely situates the UK as a potential principal player in gaining sovereign health and life science access to commercial space through government investment, satellite manufacturing, and domestic launch systems.

UK start-up company, Orbex, in partnership with Lockheed Martin have selected northern Scotland as the UK’s first vertical orbital launch site. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin, 2018

While these opportunities strongly influence the long-term development of the UK space economy, the benefits gained highlight the necessity for continued cross-sector interaction. A detailed report published by the UK Space Life and Biomedical Sciences Association identified seven key potential benefits reflecting space as a platform for health and life science research. Identified first, mutual exchange of knowledge and increased collaboration between industries would lead to improved scientific discoveries and technological advancements. Such advances would stem from increased access to non-terrestrial platforms and a ‘cross-fertilisation’ of ideas. In relation, a second benefit denotes the creation of multiple downstream applications of both space products and human-based space research. These spin-offs include new developments in terrestrial healthcare, pharmacology, and satellite applications such as Earth observation, each directly or indirectly impacting the UK economy and society.

A third benefit identifies the allowance for domestic growth of the UK space economy. The UK has proposed to obtain a 10% share of the global space market by 2030. Since the Health and Life Science system is one of the UK’s largest industrial sectors, the integration of both sectors together would serve to support essential knowledge growth and develop a variety of space assets to achieve the prospective market share. By doing so, this strategy empowers a fourth benefit of supporting government policies and priorities pertaining to space advancement, commercial markets, and the 2020 UK Government Research and Development Roadmap which commits to increasing UK investment in R&D to 2.4% GDP by 2027.

CubeSat-sized Ice Cube research experiment chamber onboard the ISS. Such chambers could be used for health and life science research in a space environment, both onboard a larger space station or in independently orbiting spacecraft. Image credit: ESA, Space Application Services

Further benefits provide support for human spaceflight initiatives and developing new medical treatments and clinical practices. With the rise of commercial space travel and space tourism, such as UK-based Virgin Galactic, the need for adaptable healthcare is essential for spacefaring individuals to cope with the space environment, especially those who lack the rigorous training of agency astronauts. Such space health systems would serve to support astronaut crew and passengers during pre-, in-, and post-flight and would help researchers better understand human health in space and develop applicable in-space medical practices. Medicine research in space environments would provide the opportunity to develop off-Earth healthcare provisions, conducted through Ice Cube research chambers (Fig. 2) or return sample missions proposed by UK-based Space Forge, as well as the advancement of terrestrial applications for telemedicine and digital healthcare services. Remote monitoring of astronauts has proven effective in safeguarding astronaut health and could be further developed as an invaluable asset to future NHS digital healthcare platforms.

Lastly, cross-industry collaboration and innovation across different sectors would potentially help stimulate younger generations to pursue careers in space life sciences and STEM. According to the UK Space Skills Alliance, 68% of UK businesses predict a need for recruitment within the next few years, but shortage of skilled STEM workers could cause critical issues to the UK economy. Currently, only 26% of new UK workers graduated from a STEM-based university program, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Developing a cross-pollination of industry knowledge, field expertise, and sector integration would help drive inclusive and representative workforces towards STEM areas including space, engineering, life science, and medicine, among others.

In order to capitalize on growing the UK space economy and building domestic space infrastructure, the chief benefits impacting the UK on a scientific, economic, and societal scale arise from cross-sector interaction between space and health and life science industries, which together represent a sizable portion of UK assets. Pursuing the link between space and health and life science research will not only lead to new advances in domestic space accessibility and healthcare research applications but will lay the foundation for capitalising on the ambition to grow the UK space economy and build a domestic infrastructure for future space and health and life science research.

– Evan Cook

About the Author:

Evan is an award-winning author, playwright, and filmmaker, currently working as a content writer and journalist at Design & Data in Cologne, Germany. He holds a master’s degree in space science from the International Space University, a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Surrey, and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and creative writing from the University of South Carolina – Aiken.

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