A FEW weeks ago the 80-year-old British Interplanetary Society, "Britain's leading think tank on space development", announced a new study project – the feasability of constructing of large space colonies, each capable of housing vast numbers of people.

Colonies such as these lie many decades into future, after research running into countless billions of pounds and the creation of advanced new materials. But they represent a strand of pioneering blue-sky thinking at a time when the UK space industry is preparing for a major conference in Glasgow.

The event, which is being held at the SECC on July 15 to 17, has triggered key questions, including how ambitious and robust is the space industry – and what should be the limits of our dreams?

The UK Space Conference 2013 will be addressed by British ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Tim Peake; Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of the ESA; David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science; and Dr David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

The UK's space sector contributes £9.1 billion a year to the economy and employs about 29,000 people.

Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and social-media star who was until recently part of the crew on the International Space Station, is among those who have an optimistic view of our long-term space ambitions. In 2015, Peake is destined for the ISS, where Hatfield famously sang David Bowie's Space Oddity to a global audience down on Earth.

Hadfield, who has earned a two-book deal to write about his experiences, said: "We are slowly, incrementally leaving our planet. We will go to the Moon and we will go to Mars. We will go and see what asteroids and comets are made of.

"But we're not going to do it tomorrow and we're not going to do it because it titillates the nerve-endings. We're going to do it because it's a natural human progression."

Alistair Scott, president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), said: "It was Arthur C Clarke and his colleagues, who formed the BIS, who said in the 1930s and 1940s that we should be using space – it was the next frontier. They began designing moonships and a lot of their ideas ended being incorporated into Nasa programmes. The BIS always looks a hundred years further ahead. We are now looking at colonies, not just at colonising other planets but colonies in space.

"Some people advocate that rather than landing on a planet like Venus or Mars, it would probably be safer to live in a colony over Earth or one of these planets, and create your own 1g gravity and have your own atmosphere. Some colonies will contain up to 10,000 people in what we know as a World Ship, a colossal vehicle tens of kilometres in length, rotating at a speed that almost gives you 1g gravity.

"We've also been discussing what kind of social systems we would set up on colonies or on other planets, where you can't just disappear into the forest and breathe air and drink water. You have to be supported."

Scott added: "So we're looking out to other planets and stars, but we're also looking to saving this planet. The big fears now are electro-magnetic pulses, which come from solar flares and which can damage the world's electronics and make us lose our electrical energy.

"We're also looking at asteroids. There are fears about asteroids heading in our direction and we're probably due one in the next decade or two."

As to whether we will see a permanent space colony in our lifetime, Parker, of the UK Space Agency, said: "The chances are pretty low, and the reason for that is still actually the cost of getting into space.

"Once you get into space, travelling across the distances is not so difficult, and we have some great technology around, like the ion drive engines that we make in the UK that are being used for satellites to get to Mercury, for example. But the trick is still getting the first 200 miles into space."

Using solar power, an ion drive can deliver 10 times the thrust of an ordinary rocket and save nine-tenths of the weight of fuel.

"The minister [David Willetts] will be talking about some very exciting new engine technology for getting into space, which the government will be investing in. If we can get that technology to work, it will make humans going around the solar system a lot easier.

"The target is to get astronauts to Mars, and I would hope to see that in my lifetime."

Scotland, which will be the focus of the UK space industry for three days later this month, has a thriving space-industry sector of its own.

Energy Minister Fergus Ewing said: "The space sector in Scotland has already demonstrated high growth and excellent performance and is committed to accelerating this in the future. The Scottish Government will continue our involvement and funding for our space industry in support of the sector's ambitions."