Echoing ongoing speculation about the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit future as an economic and diplomatic player, the county’s future as a space power remains uncertain.
On the day - 31 October - that but for the latest delay would have been its last as a member of the EU, delegates to a London conference on the future of the UK’s space sector got a clear message from government and industry: while ambition remains top-tier, the country faces an urgent need to take bold decisions about how to exploit its strengths while losing access to around half of European spending on space.
The dilemma facing UK companies and researchers was spelled out by Magali Vaissiere, who heads the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ECSAT research unit at Harwell, near Oxford.
When ministers from the governments of ESA’s 22 member states meet on 27-28 November in Seville to agree the agency’s budget for the coming three years, they will be discussing spending proposals totalling more than €12 billion ($13 billion).
Recent years have seen the UK stand as ESA’s fourth-biggest contributor, behind Germany, France and Italy. And, as ESA is technically independent of the EU, the UK - which will remain a member of ESA despite Brexit - will retain full access to most programmes, she says.
However, the European Commission is also building its own space programme, of and for EU member states - and the bulk of its proposed €16 billion, seven-year budget is earmarked for the Galileo satellite navigation system and defence and security related projects. Once out of the EU, however, the UK will lose access to Galileo contracts, and how much other work its companies can bid for, she says, remains to be seen.
Vaissiere, who praises the UK for its pioneering role in developing downstream applications for satellite technologies and bringing private finance into the space sector, adds that she believes “the UK can continue via ESA” to develop commercial applications. ECSAT in Harwell, for example, is the agency’s hub for commercial telecommunications work.
Another key European project which has seen heavy UK involvement is Copernicus, the EU-controlled but ESA-delivered Earth observation programme to which the UK has been a major contributor.
UK Space Agency chief executive Graham Turnock says the terms of UK participation are yet to be determined. The planning and management of Copernicus is in any case a test of an ongoing evolution of relations between ESA and the EU.
Turnock notes, though, that the prospect of Brexit has brought opportunities. The size of the UK Space Agency has roughly doubled, to about 250 people. And, the prospect of losing access to Galileo has seen initial work carried out on to devise an independent UK capability in satellite navigation.
Broadly, says Turnock, the UK space sector has the potential to thrive by exploiting its “very good connections” to both “old world” space powers like the USA and Europe and “new world” players such as Australia, Canada or New Zealand.
Equally critically, he says, the UK must devise a clear national space programme and make the most of the growing call for so-called “dual use” space technologies that combine military and civil applications.
Other UK space industry strengths that will survive Brexit include long-standing cross-party support in government. The UK also looks set to be the first European country to initiate launch capability, both land-based from Scotland, and from as early as 2021 by Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system operating from Cornwall.
And, as Royal Navy Captain Dave Moody, the deputy head of space at the Joint Forces Command, points out, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is “an anchor customer for the UK space sector”.
Indeed, the MoD’s role is notable. Defence money is supporting the advent of a vertical launch facility in Scotland as well as UK-built satellites returning video from orbit. And, says Moody, the MoD is meeting or exceeding targets to push a quarter of spending through small- and medium-sized companies.
Annual MoD spending on space, he adds, is now “hundreds of millions of pounds” and set to grow “considerably” over the next 10 years.
All the same, the country faces what Nik Smith, Lockheed Martin’s space director for the UK, describes as a “moment of truth”.
Smith, whose company is a partner in the effort to bring vertical launch services to Scotland, says the UK must ask itself what sort of space sector it wants to have. To do that, it must recognise that it does not have the depth of resources available to big rivals and must identify niches it can serve; at the same time, though, it must be prepared to invest “horizontally” - to develop skills and capabilities - rather than merely putting money into the “vertical stovepipes” of specific programmes.
Following that theme was James Cemmell, vice president for government engagement at telecommunications giant Inmarsat.
Cemmell - whose company is both London headquartered and one of the most successful space businesses ever - stresses that the UK has long had the luxury of observing, and shaping, European space efforts but now that the EU is upping its space game “it is time to act”.
Cemmell has two messages. One is that the UK must see through proposals to create a National Space Council and develop its own “top-down” strategy.
The other is salient for a country that looks set to break away from a transnational grouping that has been, at least in space, a huge success. Space, says Cemmell, is a “cross-border exercise”. He citesradio frequency allocations, an example that bears heavily on Inmarsat, but implied far broader relevance: “It’s about co-operation.”