U.K. space agency chief hopeful for ‘continued cooperation’ with Europe after Brexit

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Britain intends to keep its membership in the European Space Agency. But the details remain to be seen.

LONDON — Lucrative contracts and thousands of jobs are on the line for the U.K. space industry as Brexit negotiations continue.

The U.K. Space Agency, created in 2010 to promote science and economic development through space ventures, is in a state of uncertainty and flux because so much of its work and mission are tied to the European Union. Brexit has thrown a huge wrench into key space projects such as the Galileo — Europe’s version of GPS — and the Copernicus Earth observation constellations.

Although Brexit is casting a big cloud over these programs, the expectation is that the United Kingdom will retain its partner status, said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency.

“Brexit doesn’t change our interest in remaining players in those programs,” Turnock told SpaceNews Thursday at the Global Milsatcom conference.

A protracted “divorce settlement” could not only cost England space jobs and contracts but also put a damper on its ambitions to grow the U.K. space economy and capitalize on private investments.

Turnock said he expects more clarity on Britain’s future role in the European Space Agency during the second phase of Brexit negotiations in mid to late 2018.

“We are going to have to wait for a resolution in round two,” he said. The U.K. intends to stay in the European Space Agency but the specific details of the form of a future partnership remain to be seen.

“From the U.K. perspective, we want to get on with that as soon as possible,” he said. The official deadline for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is March 29, 2019.

Phase one of the Brexit talks are underway now. Per EU negotiating guidelines, phase one focuses on separation and “orderly withdrawal.” Only when the 27 union members decide sufficient progress has been made on phase one can phase two begin. Key issues in phase one are protecting citizens’ rights, resolving the Irish border and reaching a financial settlement.

Phase two of the talks will focus on agreeing on a “framework” of a future trading relationship between the U.K. and the E.U.

Britain wants to move to stage two sooner rather than later, but the financial settlement has created an impasse. According to media reports Wednesday, the EU is taking a hard-nosed stance as ambassadors met in Brussels.

For Britain’s space industry, numerous issues hang in the balance. Potentially the EU could withdraw all work on classified systems such as Galileo from the U.K. because it would be considered a foreign country.

The European Space Agency serves as the technical and procurement agent for the European Commission, which owns Galileo. Copernicus is 70 percent funded by the European Union.

The ESA was created in 1975 and has 22 member states: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Slovenia is an associate member. The agency also has signed formal cooperation deals with Canada.

A wrenching concern is how classified technology will be handled after Brexit. “You need to be part of the EU program to get PRS,” said Turnock. PRS is short for public regulated service, an encrypted signal that will be transmitted by Galileo satellites. The U.K. needs to have access to that signal, said Turnock. “That is important to us.”

Classified Galileo spacecraft currently are built in the U.K. by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.

“We simply see the strong benefit to the U.K. remaining involved in the European Space Agency,” Turnock insisted. Economic concerns are important, but “surely there is interest in strong continued scientific cooperation. We don’t want to lose all that in the context of the U.K. leaving the union.”

Satellites were recently touted as one of the “eight great technologies” that could help boost the U.K. economy, according to a BBC report said. The U.K. space sector has outperformed the economy as a whole for several years.