Editorial | British Investment in Environmental Satellites Continues Positive Trend

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The United Kingdom continues to raise its profile in space activity, most recently with a commitment to invest 15 million British pounds ($25 million) in a pair of international environmental satellite projects, both involving France.

As part of a bilateral framework agreement between the two nations, Britain and France agreed to partner on the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer Next Generation instrument for the latest Metop polar-orbiting weather satellites being built for Europe’s Eumetsat weather satellite organization. That investment totals 5.5 million British pounds. 

The U.K. also agreed to sink 7.5 million British pounds into the U.S.-European Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Slated to launch in 2020, SWOT is the follow-on to the long-running series of U.S.-French Jason satellites whose once-experimental ocean topography measurements have become indispensable to weather forecasters.

The investments continue a strong trend that dates to late 2012, when Britain announced it would increase spending with the European Space Agency by 25 percent annually over a five-year period ending in 2017.  

Britain has long favored space programs that support proven commercial capabilities, primarily satellite communications. The assumption of a larger role in international Earth observation activities is a logical next step for the country, which now is ESA’s third-largest contributor. 

It also is extremely helpful in light of the financial challenges faced by the SWOT and second-generation Metop programs. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, in late 2011 informed Eumetsat that due to its own financial difficulties it would not be able to contribute key instruments to the Metop program.

With similar troubles confronting space programs everywhere, the U.K.’s willingness to bring its checkbook to a widening array of international activities continues to be one of the good-news stories in the industry.