— A British Parliamentary committee has proposed that Britain’s space agency, which currently has less power and influence than its major European counterparts, be given more authority to make early decisions on European programs.
But the committee did not support the creation of a British space agency that would have a role equivalent to space agencies elsewhere. It clearly acknowledged the weaknesses of Britain’s current system: The British National Space Centre (BNSC) has almost no funds of its own and is limited to coordinating space-program investment from a host of government agencies that often have little interest in or knowledge of space.
The committee insisted that the current BNSC partnership can be reformed by giving BNSC a bit more authority and a small budget of its own.
In a comprehensive report on British space policy issued July 17, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also urged BNSC to establish closer relations with the British Defence Ministry on dual-use space technologies.
Both defense and civil/commercial users would benefit from a closer collaboration between the British National Space Centre and defense authorities, it said.
Better civil-military collaboration could reduce duplication of research and, ultimately, create a larger area of space-based independence for Britain’s military with respect to the United States.
“The UK’s traditional dependence upon space data from the United States could be reduced if the UK had an independent small satellite capability,” the report says. The committee also speculates that Britain, whose military is considering development of a small radar satellite to follow an optical spacecraft already in orbit, may wish to consider a domestic small-satellite launch capability. The effort would be part of a British program similar to the Operationally Responsive Space effort under way in the United States.
Britain currently does not support Europe’s Ariane 5 or Vega launch vehicles beyond the minimal levels. The committee says Britain should not make opposition to launch programs a matter of principle, but should at least consider them in the future.
Air Vice Marshal Chris Moran, assistant chief of the Ministry of Defence’s Air Staff and a defense liaison to the BNSC, said defense authorities are pleased with the data received from the small Topsat optical imaging Earth observation satellite and now are looking at how to follow it up. Topsat, carrying a 2.5-meter-resolution imager, was built by British industry and launched in October 2005.
“[W]e have already started a dialogue inside the [Ministry of Defence] as to what we might want to do beyond the Topsat program,” Moran told the committee according to a transcript of the session, also released July 17. “We might develop a radar sensor capability. [Topsat] has been a good experience and we would like to try and explore further, building on that capability.”
Despite the committee’s backing of closer BNSC ties with British defense forces, the report sends no clear signal on whether Britain should welcome future military use of Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system.
The report accepts the inherently dual-use nature of much space technology without offering guidance to British authorities regarding Europe’s civilian-financed Galileo.
Galileo’s financial future will be decided by European Union governments in the coming months following these governments’ acknowledgement that private-sector investment cannot be secured until the system is at least partly in operation.
British government officials in the past have been outspoken in insisting that a line be drawn around Galileo to prevent its wholesale use by European defense authorities.
But the parliamentary report declines to say where those boundaries should be drawn. It says current European Union space policy “does not clarify whether … military users could use Galileo for military applications or not.”
The report does not specify possible Galileo applications that are used by military forces for non-military applications. It urges the British government to clarify the issue as it debates whether to continue to back Galileo.
The report cites without comment a 2004 Parliamentary committee assessment that tried to distinguish between “military uses, such as tracking groups of men,” which would be acceptable, as opposed to “military applications, such as missile guidance systems,” which would not.