Astronomy, agri-rovers and education in the UK and China: Collaborations in two of the world’s most exciting space economies
10 Dec 2018



​Leading figures from UK and Chinese space research and industry are coming together to strengthen their growing relationship.


​​​​​​​​The annual​ UK-China Space Workshop.

Credit: STFC RAL Space
​The UK space industry has a long history of working with Chinese counterparts. A UK-China Joint Laboratory was established to foster this in 2005, led by a partnership between the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space in the UK and Beihang University in China.

During this time, it has brought together over 2000 space scientists, technologists and industrialists from more than 90 organisations. The result has been 12 joint research projects and an international research programme based on the use of space to help agriculture as well as improved cultural, scientific and business understanding.

Now, 55 UK and 120 Chinese delegates from space academic and industry will be meeting to discuss how to deepen the collaboration between the two nations, and pave the way for future innovation. 

Delegates at the 13th annual UK-China Space Workshop

Dr Hugh Mortimer, co-chairman of the conference and research scientist at RAL Space said, “By bringing together the best scientist and engineers from the UK with those in China, we are able to unlock the potential for space to provide real benefits to us here on Earth. Over the last 13 years we have been involved in, funded and facilitated some incredible projects that have seen technology designed for space be used to help farmers, through to designing satellites to study our nearest star, the Sun. These projects have only been possible because of the Joint Laboratory between RAL Space and Beihang University which links together projects and priorities to benefit both countries.”

Leading figures from the UK and China space sectors will be meeting at the UK China Space Conference in Ningbo, China, on the 10th December, run by the Joint Laboratory. 

Space science missions have been the traditional domain for collaboration. The first European Space Agency and Chinese National Space Administration mission, Double Star, launched in 2003. In the 9 years after it launched over 1000 scientific publications using data from Double Star and its European sister mission, Cluster, had been published, written by scientists in Europe, China and across the world. 

This conference, almost uniquely, takes in a much wider range of topics, from technical talks on emerging technologies, to practical advice on export controls for both UK and Chinese companies.

Professor Chris Mutlow, Director of STFC RAL Space said: “We have been working with partners in China for decades and have built very strong collaborative relationships. As part of UK Research and Innovation, the body set up to support researchers and businesses, RAL Space is a neutral broker, positioned between industry and academia. This puts us in the perfect position to support the ambitions of both in China.” 

Examples of this brokerage role are the projects supported by UK Research and Innovation’s £27 million Newton Fund to use technology from the space sector to help agricultural practices in China. This has seen UK and Chinese organisations working together to use the latest space applications, from modified Mars rovers to soil moisture monitoring from space, to solve some of the challenges facing a country which has only 7% of the world’s arable land and water resources but has to feed 22% of the world’s population.

Education is also a key theme of the UK and China’s budding relationship in space. The ongoing struggle to recruit skilled scientists and engineers in the UK’s growing space sector has made UK efforts to bring space to the classroom and science to life particularly strong. The education programme around Tim Peake’s mission alone reached at least 1.6 million children and 9,894 schools.

A child and a presenter doing a dry ice demonstration

China are keen to learn from the UK’s approach to science education and skills development. The UK’s National Space Academy has partnered with Chinese organisations to take its programme to China and bring together students in both countries.   

Professor Anu Ojha OBE, Director of the UK National Space Academy said, “” China is home to one of the world’s most ambitious space programmes – and to maximise its potential international collaboration in education and skills development is key. Over the last three years we have developed innovative education programmes from school to University level in which China partners have benefitted from the innovative space education methodologies developed by the National Space Academy, STFC and other partners in the UK. The orbital physics teaching experiments devised by the Academy and conducted by Tim Peake during his space mission are now being used by students and teachers across China and we have held the first ever UK summer school in space sciences for Chins engineering undergraduates. Looking ahead, we are entering a golden era of space education collaboration with China and very much hope to use our joint programmes for the benefit of global partners and hard-to-reach/disadvantaged communities in developing countries. Science education knows no barriers.”


Top: Delegates at the 13th annual UK-China Space Workshop. Photo: STFC RAL Space

Middle: The 1st day of the 13th UK-China Space Workshop.  Photo: STFC RAL Space

Bottom: Part of the education programme under the UK China Conference. Photo: STFC RAL Space  ​