Worrying times for the UK’s space industry

3 min read

News that UK companies might be shut out of the Galileo programme raises concerns for companies working in the country’s space industry.

What next for the UK’s space industry? It’s been a busy few weeks for the industry what with news that the UK could be shut out of key elements of the EU’s Galileo satellite-navigation system on security grounds.

In response Greg Clarke, the UK’s Business Secretary, is not only seeking legal advice on reclaiming money spent on Galileo but it’s also been reported that he is considering setting up a rival satellite navigation system.

Last month the House of Lords’ EU Internal Market Sub-Committee released a letter that had been sent to Sam Gyimah, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in which it called for greater urgency and clarity in terms of on-going Brexit negotiations. The letter warned of the impact the UK’s withdrawal could have with many UK firms losing valuable access to EU space programmes.

The UK’s space industry is a major success with growth averaging over 8 per cent, year-on-year, since 2000. The sector now employs upwards of 40,000 people.

Government has seen space activity as an area in which ‘UK plc’ could excel so the confusion generated by Brexit and the possibility of the UK being cut adrift has raised real concerns. Could it spur a flight of high-tech space companies from the UK undermining the government’s ambition to take 10 per cent of the £400bn a year global space market?

The UK has a long relationship with the Galileo programme and, at present, plays a central role in its development and operation. Based in Guildford, Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) was responsible for building the first Galileo spacecraft and has gone on, in partnership, to build all 22 of the current Galileo spacecraft.

The row over the Galileo project comes down to attempts to restrict Britain’s access to sensitive security information after Brexit and the European Commission is demanding the right to cancel existing contracts, without penalty, if a supplier is no longer based in an EU member state. More worryingly for UK companies already working on the project, the Commission may also require any supplier ejected from the programme to repay all costs to the EU associated with finding a replacement.

Commenting Richard Peckham, head of UKspace, the trade association, was quoted in the Financial Times as having said: “Since the UK government has so far failed to make any clear statement of intent or even a wish to remain in these important EU space programmes, it is not surprising that the EU is cautious about UK industry participation.”

To date the UK has spent £1.2bn on Galileo, Europe’s answer to the US GPS system, hence Clark’s decision to take legal advice on whether the UK can claim that cash back.

A recent decision to move the back-up site of the Galileo Security Monitoring Centre from the UK to Spain suggests that the concerns being voiced are real.

The UK is seen as a highly-valued and effective member of the European Space Agency (ESA) and while the ESA is not an EU agency, some of the ESA’s optional programmes are delivered in partnership with the EU.

The UK has outstanding experience, expertise and heritage in space and if it is unable to participate in EU space programmes post 2019, there are worries that not only will it impact the UK’s burgeoning space industry but that it could have a negative impact on Europe’s as well.

The House of Lords’ letter to the government urged greater clarity on the part of the government in terms of its Brexit negotiations and warned of the impact continued uncertainty was having on the UK’s space industry. It urged the Government to confirm its position on the UK’s relationship with current and future EU space programmes, including those with security implications, and went on to call for a timetable in which an agreement could be reached.

While the government’s planned investment to enable new satellite launch services and low gravity spaceflights from UK spaceports, as detailed in the Space Act 2018, are welcomed, they are seen as being insufficient to compensate for a loss of participation in these valuable EU space programmes.

While there was always going to be a price to pay for Brexit, is the space industry set to be one of the first to suffer?