New Government Space Agency To Centralize British Space Efforts

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PARIS — The British government on March 23 announced it will create a U.K. Space Agency to direct all British civil space investment, replacing the current British National Space Centre structure with a centralized space-policy command post that “will have the muscle it needs to coordinate space policy and boost our international standing,” according to a government policy document.

The new agency, to be operating as of April 1, will not necessarily have a bigger budget than what Britain currently spends across the various departments that deal with science, technology, Earth observation and other sectors that use space-based assets. But by federating Britain’s space budget into a single organization, the new agency should be better able to defend British interests — and British industry — in negotiations at the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) in particular.

Alongside the agency, the government will establish a National Space Technology Strategy designed in part to ensure that Britain’s thriving space sector is made a part of the nation’s overall technology development posture.

In announcing the new agency and at the same time responding to recommendations made by a government-appointed space-policy advisory committee, British Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and Science Minister Lord Drayson said the government is determined to make it easier for British space-hardware companies to do business in Europe and elsewhere.

In its written response to the space policy advisory committee led by Logical plc Chairman Andy Green, the government in particular said Britain’s export credit agency, the Export Credits Guarantee Department, “is currently in contact with British [space-hardware] suppliers who might benefit from its support.” The document cautioned that any export-credit backing must be within the guidelines established by the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Green’s advisory panel proposed that Britain increase its contributions to ESA by 7 percent a year for a decade to give Britain more leverage relative to ESA’s biggest backers — France, Germany and Italy.

Drayson said Britain’s current focus is debt reduction, adding, “We are not announcing any new money going into space today.”

Even so, the report says the government has agreed to invest in a new International Space Innovation Centre, to be co-located in Harwell with a newly created ESA center. The center, with a development budget of 40 million British pounds ($60.1 million), will be co-financed by local and regional government organizations. Industry will also be asked to contribute.

The government response announced a new in-orbit technology demonstration satellite with an investment of 3 million pounds. The satellite, to weigh about 150 kilograms at launch into low Earth orbit, will use a platform developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Guildford and carry a suite of payloads furnished and financed by the private sector and academic institutions.

Paul Brooks, director for Earth observation at SSTL, said the satellite payload will include an Automatic Identification System terminal to track maritime traffic, to be produced by the British division of Com Dev International of Canada.

In a March 23 interview, Brooks said the satellite’s platform, integration and launch will be government-financed. The total cost of what SSTL calls the TechDemoSat, including a launch in early 2012, is about 10 million pounds, with the British government share to be about 50 percent.

Britain’s current space budget of about 265 million pounds per year, of which some 85 percent is sent to ESA, is far less than the French, Germany and Italian budgets. Despite this, Green’s space policy advisory report found that the economic activity generated in Britain by space investment grew by 9 percent a year from 1999 to 2008, now employs 19,100 people and has proved resistant to the global economic downturn.

The advisory report urged that the U.K. Space Agency’s mandate include Britain’s small military space budget as well. The government’s response reserved final judgment on that pending the results of Strategic Defence Review now under way.