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Will Brexit curtail or super-charge UK space’s launch trajectory?

by AprilSix Proof

It’s been a turbulent week for the UK space industry, with the excitement of new launches and funding dampened by fears for our future involvement in major European projects. So could the UK’s dreams of becoming a space superpower be over before it’s really had the chance to get off the ground?

The UK currently captures between 6.3% and 7.7% of the global space market, with a turnover of £13.7billion (2014/15) and three times higher employment growth rate than the overall UK economy.

Top notch engineering and R&D creds and a favourable regulatory environment has made it home to some of the world’s most exciting companies, and that hasn’t showed any signs of slowing since the Leave vote. Funding has been bolstered, and new interest has emerged in the realms of commercial space. Ambitious UK start-ups, like Reaction Engines, and Open Cosmos, have recently secured investment to create revolutionary new engines and nanosatellite missions respectively.

At an event hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering this week, we were treated to a rundown of the best and the brightest in UK space. We heard how UK engineers are making the ExoMars rover suitable for Life On Mars, including preparing it for huge temperature swings, a crash landing and raging dust storms. We heard how SSTL has established itself as one of the most successful satellite companies, got an insight into the life of an exciting ‘new space’ SME with Oxford Space Systems and learned how Surrey Space Centre is helping to tackle the growing problem of space debris. 

If they are anything to go by, it’s a sector on the up. But to say it’s hit a stumbling block this week would be an understatement. Brexit, for UK Space, could represent more of what Elon Musk calls a ‘RUD’: rapid unplanned disassembly.

Growing concerns about the role of UK organisations in delivering and benefitting from European programmes came to a head this week, with confirmation that the UK will be excluded from some of the more sensitive elements of the Galileo navigation system – the Public Regulated Service (PRS) – due to security concerns. While it seems possible that access may be possible in the long-term through separate agreements with the EU, this will most definitely negatively affect the ability of UK organisations to work on PRS infrastructure.

Despite contributing 14% of the funding and 17% of the work so far on Galileo, this could significantly hamper the ability of UK organisation to exploit the downstream commercial opportunities that the infrastructure will create.

With so much of space funding and development channelled through the European Space Agency, and so many of the biggest projects contracted with EU money, it’s unsurprising that there are fears that this could be echoed across many similar programmes. This is a sentiment seemingly reinforced by ESA chiefs claiming UK companies will need to establish EU hubs to secure contracts in the future.

But with increasing worries, government have stepped in to show support for the industry, with noises around an increase in government commitment to space. The Financial Times report this week claims that the UK is considering developing its own lower cost satellite navigation system, something later confirmed by Science Minister Matt Hancock MP.

With the launch of the new Sentinel-3b satellite adding new capabilities for the ocean and land monitoring Copernicus programme, which is led by UK-based ECMFW, there were confident noises from government that the issues with Galileo would not be mirrored. The UK Space Agency announced new ESA feasibility studies awarded to the UK to plan future Sentinel satellites even after we’ve left the EU. Sam Gyimah, Science Minister was pretty clear in his response: “Our leading role in the European Space Agency will not change as we leave the EU, and this government will ensure the UK thrives in the commercial space age through our modern industrial strategy.”

It will undoubtedly take some time to unravel the issues with European space programmes. But, regardless of the outcome of Galileo, it seems that government knows the importance of the UK space sector to the economy and is committed to ensuring that the incredibly strong space innovation base in the UK continues its growth trajectory, even outside the EU.

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