The RAF is taking a step towards becoming an air and space force, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has suggested.
The UK is joining Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led international unit aimed at strengthening deterrence against hostile actors in space and at stopping the spread of debris in orbit.
Ms Mordaunt told the Air and Space Power Conference in central London that an RAF pilot is set to be seconded to the Virgin Orbit small satellite programme.
She noted that Virgin Orbit already has pilots with astronaut training and it is carrying out research into launching small satellites into space from the wing of a Boeing 747.
Science fiction is becoming science factDefence Secretary Penny Mordaunt
She said: “Science fiction is becoming science fact. One day I want to see RAF pilots earning their space wings and flying beyond the stratosphere.
“So, today I can announce we’re making a giant leap in that direction by working towards placing a test pilot into the Virgin Orbit programme.”
She described it as “a bold signal of global Britain’s aspiration” and said it showed that “if you join our RAF you will join a service where you can become an aviator or an astronaut, where you will push back the frontiers of space and create a launchpad to the stars”.
She said the Ministry of Defence is investing £30 million in launching a small satellite demonstrator within a year.
It is hoped that these small, low-orbiting satellites may potentially see live high-resolution video being beamed directly into RAF fighter jet cockpits and give pilots better battle awareness.
The small satellite demonstrator is to be supported by a new team of UK and US personnel, named Team Artemis.
Joint Forces Command, the organisation which co-ordinates activity across the armed forces, will be changed into a new body called Strategic Command, Ms Mordaunt said.
It is to be given a greater strategic role in trying to tackle threats across the fighting domains of air, land, sea, cyber and space.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, the Chief of the Air Staff, said Team Artemis is part of “our plans to take our space ambitions to the next stage”.
It is also among a range of projects which underline the “important and constantly growing role of space in the Royal Air Force’s capabilities,” he added.
CND general secretary Kate Hudson condemned UK involvement in new military programmes in space, saying it should be left “free and undefiled”.
She said: “The militarisation of space will only make the world a more dangerous place by weakening existing arms control treaties and pressuring other states to ramp up their own military spending.”