How Hong Kong can play a critical role in the space economy

Hong Kong needs to wake up to the opportunities of the “NewSpace” economy and the wealth-creating industries that are springing up around the commercial exploitation of the orbital environment.
Sadly, these industries are largely bypassing us (but not Macau) despite their huge potential for our city. This is especially as Hong Kong strives for greater technological relevance in the Greater Bay Area. It’s also because Hong Kong not only has the capacity, within our great universities and institutes, for talent incubation, innovation and technological breakthroughs, but also in the way the NewSpace economy can be funded, managed and supported.

This could be via our strong legal and compliance infrastructure, investment avenues, listing expertise and associated knowledge mechanisms, as befits a great global fintech hub. We just need the right “green light” environment set from on high. The investment interest is there.

I have been banging this drum for the last two years but I am not alone; there are now voices from key industry players and mainland operators, all marching to the same beat. Full disclosure – I have a clear interest in promoting and supporting the emergence of the NewSpace economy in Hong Kong, not for any meaningful pecuniary interest but for scientific and educational purposes.

The NewSpace economy covers the low Earth orbit a few hundred kilometres above us, where most of the world’s satellites are. It includes the geostationary realm, about 36,000km from us, where the satellites for global communications and TV are found.

By 2030, thanks to the companies like SpaceX, with their ever-increasing Starlink satellite constellations, there may be as many as 60,000 satellites. Their purposes include telecommunications, the internet, in-plane Wi-fi, remote sensing of our planet and pure science. Most, though, have an interest in monetising the ones and zeroes of the binary digital data transmitted back to Earth.


SpaceX and Indonesia launch satellite to boost high-speed internet coverage in the country

SpaceX and Indonesia launch satellite to boost high-speed internet coverage in the country

That all sounds impressive and important, and it is. The commercial payback can be significant. Hong Kong can play a role via companies like AdaSpace, USPACE Technology Group and Silkwave, and especially in supporting smart-city infrastructure from space.

But the low Earth orbit environment operates a bit like the Wild West. It urgently needs effective and enforceable global regulation and here, Hong Kong could use its skills in compliance, negotiation, dispute resolution and regulatory excellence to help manage such a global process. The use of low Earth orbit is vital to the global economy but unfettered access comes with serious risks.

I am talking about Kessler syndrome, a hypothesis that low Earth orbit could become so cluttered that the debris from one collision leads to others in a cascading and catastrophic chain reaction. This could arise sooner than many think due to the ever-increasing threat of hundreds of millions of particles of space debris.
Only the largest pieces (greater than 10cm) are tracked but even small debris measuring less than 1cm can do enormous damage to a working satellite because it’s moving at a very high relative speed. In 2016, a tiny fragment, possibly a paint flake, chipped a window of the International Space Station (ISS); in 2021, space debris punched a hole in one of the ISS’s robotic arms.
To say Kessler syndrome would be catastrophic is, unfortunately, no exaggeration. Within hours of the destruction of most satellites, the global economy would shut down, with financial and market transactions disabled along with most telecommunications. Both the ISS and China’s Tiangong space station would be cut off.

Traffic in cities would become gridlocked, our smartphones would stop functioning as such and most countries are likely to declare a state of emergency to deal with the calamity. It could set back human societies by decades.

Amazingly, despite space debris being a well-recognised, even researched, problem by serious scientists around the world, there are few practical and affordable solutions.

When it comes to the space economy, Hong Kong must reach for the stars

Powerful global regulations with serious teeth are needed, to protect the extremely valuable low Earth orbit in particular, and Hong Kong can help – the University of Hong Kong already offers space law courses. And later this year, a major international conference focused on space sustainability will be held in our city for the first time.

So we need to wake up, recognise and react to the mainland’s progress in this area and seize our rightful role, not just as an innovative technology incubator but as a dispute and compliance centre of excellence to protect our precious space environment and its commercial promise.

Quentin Parker is an astrophysicist based at the University of Hong Kong and director of its Laboratory for Space Research


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