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Published: 01:12, August 31, 2023 | Updated: 10:30, August 31, 2023
Is there room for Space in the CE's upcoming policy address?
By Quentin Parker
Published:01:12, August 31, 2023 Updated:10:30, August 31, 2023 By Quentin Parker

Does Hong Kong have the “right stuff” to embrace the opportunities of the New Space economy with “Tomorrow’s Talent” Today?

In the recently released Hong Kong Polytechnic University Innovation and Technology Index, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region ranks seventh across China. This ranking is attributable to lower scores in research and development, the relatively modest cadre of innovation and technology professionals based here, the smaller numbers of tech startups, fewer patents submitted, and the relatively small contribution from the city’s manufacturing outputs to our GDP. 

One area where Hong Kong does outperform other Chinese cities is in our status and impact as a fintech powerhouse. This is based on a robust and internationally respected, globally leading regulatory and compliance framework for banking and investment infrastructure. We are well placed to facilitate significant capital investments based on our effectively free market. But are we making the most of what we have? 

It’s possible that Hong Kong’s ranking can rise to as high as third by 2032, but only if the city can achieve its bold, high-tech vision of which the proposed Northern Metropolis will be a crucial exemplar.

This is outlined in the Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Development Blueprint from the HKSAR government published in 2022. We need to have a laser-like focus on the best, currently still delivering and growing areas of the economy, but also recognize and seize the fresh opportunities which are literally emerging out of the sky. 

There is one apparently neglected area, currently still falling under the radar, which is ripe for such exploitation and one that can help turbocharge Hong Kong up these rankings. 

I am talking about New Space, which is the emerging part of the global economy involved with the commercial exploitation of the space environment. Think SpaceX from Elon Musk, space tourism like with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and the thousands of microsatellites launched over the past few years with commercial intent. This is an economy that is already worth around $500 billion and is predicted to break the $1 trillion boundary by the decade’s end, according to Morgan Stanley. 

Indeed, more general Chinese mainland space and planetary sciences are rapidly developing national strengths in critical strategic areas of global importance. It’s clear the mainland is keen to engage Hong Kong in this great national endeavor.

This is obvious from a few recent examples: the mainland payload specialist initiative for two taikonauts from Hong Kong and Macao for China’s Tiangong space station; the specific new opportunities for Hong Kong tertiary education establishments to propose science payloads for the space station (our own Hong Kong University Laboratory for Space Research proposal has just been submitted); a significant and exciting recent development with HKU getting access to Chinese moon rock — a precious mainland gift; and the presence in Hong Kong of commercial New Space companies like Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group, AdaSpace, Origin.Space, Spacety, Feilong and Silkworm. 

The HKSAR can and should play a greater role especially given some of the unique advantages our city offers. So please make space for Space in our next policy address. Let us embrace the opportunities that the New Space economy offers, and let’s engage with “Tomorrow’s Talent” Today

To add to these positive developments, the concept of astropreneurship has been vigorously promoted by Hong Kong-based NGO the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy (OASA) over the past two years. This has led to Hong Kong’s very first New Space conference to be organized by OASA in Cyberport on Oct 20, 2023, on “Tomorrow’s Technologies Today, Preparing Your Next Opportunities in the Dawning of the Space Industry in Greater Bay Area”.

Another piece of excellent news is that the International Astronomical Union Scientific Organizing Committee of the Asia-Pacific Regional meetings has approached HKU’s Lab for Space Research and, by extension, the city of Hong Kong to host the prestigious Asia-Pacific Regional IAU Meeting in April 2026.

Our acceptance was announced on Aug 11 at the closing ceremony of APRIM 2023 in Koriyama, Japan. The Imperial Japanese Princess graced the event. This gives some idea of the prestige and importance of such a large international scientific meeting. This is a significant honor, coup, and opportunity for our city with a substantial international science event of this scale (up to 500 international delegates expected from over 40 countries and regions).

President Xi Jinping opened the IAU General Assembly meeting held in China some years ago when he was vice-president. It’s a beautiful impact-generating machine and should attract solid corporate donors and give great exposure to our city’s research and New Space presence. 

It’s this rapidly changing landscape and the fleeting opportunities that should strongly motivate a bolder government pivot to what is an increasing mainland and strategic priority. The HKSAR is lagging.

Entrepreneurial New Space activity and government policy should dovetail more effectively, and this whole area is in desperate need of an ambitious, forward-looking overhaul. This is so that Hong Kong can better exploit the advantage of the regulatory and legal processes associated with space use and smart-city remote sensing and artificial intelligence. 

Furthermore, New Space opportunities can inspire and train the next generation of students, scientists, technologists and astropreneurs to contribute to the long-term social, economic and high-tech developing capacity of the HKSAR. Additionally, there is the overall Greater Bay Area economic development in New Space activities to consider and the emerging opportunities that we can and must take advantage of.

With five universities in the global top 100 in a city of less than 8 million, Hong Kong has the “right stuff” in terms of emerging young talent to make an impact today — and tomorrow — to help transform the way the next generation thinks, not just about Space and Planetary Sciences, but about the rapidly emerging associated opportunities of the New Space economy. 

As an example of where we could be, Macau University of Science and Technology has a State key lab of Lunar and Planetary Sciences and gives a clear example of leadership in a Chinese Space mission with mainland support of around 650 million yuan ($89.28 million). HKSAR is well placed to lobby for our 1-billion-yuan level HKSAR satellite from the mainland. Our city has 10 times the population and seven times the GDP of Macao, with much broader expertise and industrial capabilities. HKU, PolyU and industrial partners can all play a key role in supporting such a mission and, given the HKSAR’s special status, support the mainland’s Space explorations and maximize impact and collaborations internationally.

Finally, unlike some other worthy areas, Space and Planetary Sciences and astrophysics and the exciting new opportunities of the New Space economy elicit strong public engagement with flow-on student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

This is evidenced by, for example, HKU’s “BEST” CubeSat program and PolyU’s equivalent in local schools and also with keen attention given to the Moon, Mars and other Chinese-led Space exploration missions. Indeed, we hope, via our city’s growing New Space activities in particular, including the PR footprints of our university’s space missions, that HKSAR government support and regulatory policy may improve. Greater government interest, investment (and so jobs) in this globally burgeoning sector is hoped for. The HKSAR can and should play a greater role especially given some of the unique advantages our city offers. So please make space for Space in our next policy address. Let us embrace the opportunities that the New Space economy offers, and let’s engage with “Tomorrow’s Talent” Today!

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong, the director of its Laboratory for Space Research, and vice-chairman of the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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