LONDON — The Oct. 13 launch of the air-pollution-monitoring satellite Sentinel 5P was a bittersweet moment for the UK space sector.
The craft, part of the European Commission’s Copernicus Earth-observation program was built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, some 50 kilometers north of London.
With the country’s pending withdrawal from the European Union, questions remain to what extent will UK space companies retain access to such lucrative contracts in the future.
Speaking at the Sentinel 5P launch event in was Jo Johnson, the UK’s minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation. Johnson tried to reassure those in attendance that Sentinel 5P is not the UK’s final contribution to large EU-funded space projects such as Copernicus, Galileo and the Space Surveillance and Tracking program (SST).
“It’s a great day for our space sector,” he said. “We are very pleased that Sentinel 5P is taking place — it’s a real example of the extraordinary capability of our UK space sector, our industrial companies that are contributing to the success of this program.”
“It demonstrates that the UK, even as we leave the European Union, is more open to collaboration on the European basis than ever before. We are obviously working hard to ensure that it is well understood across government here and also in Brussels, the huge potential that we see for successful collaboration in years ahead on future space programs.”
Airbus Defence and Space built Sentinel 5P as part of a 45.5-million-euro contract signed in 2011 — five years before the 2016 referendum that decided for the UK to separate from the European block.
Johnson tried to dispel the space industry’s concerns, noting that the UK is not withdrawing from the European Space Agency, which is independent on the EU, and in fact increased its contribution to its budgets.
However, Copernicus, while executed by ESA, is by 70 percent funded by the European Union.
In its Future Partnership Paper on Collaboration on science and innovation, published in September, the UK government outlined its vision of remaining fully involved in programs such as Copernicus, Galileo and SST.
However, the government admits that while arrangements exist for non-EU countries to participate in those programs in terms of data access and usage, when it comes to large industrial contracts, the situation might look considerably different.
“There are a range of precedents for third-country participation in Copernicus, both within and outside Europe,” the Future Partnership Paper states.
The paper further adds about the SST program: “European Economic Area states Norway and Iceland enjoy full access to data and services and have the right for industry to bid into the program, without program voting rights.”
However, the UK government’s current position is for the country to both the European Union and the broader European Economic Area, which includes Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein in addition to the 28 EU member states. The European Economic Area, constitutes the European Single Market area with its free movement of people, goods, services and capital.
The UK government made it clear that with the country exiting the union, the free movement of people, the major condition for participation in the single market, will cease to apply.
Some UK politicians, namely Jo Johnson’s brother Boris Johnson, the current secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, have previously claimed the UK can “have its cake and eat it,” meaning retaining access to the single market and other perks while restricting free movement — something the EU representatives strongly disagreed with.
European Commission spokeswoman Lucia Caudet said it is far too early to speculate on any future UK involvement in European Union’s space programs.
“We are currently focused on negotiating the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union,” Caudet said. “Our priority at this stage is to achieve sufficient progress on our three key areas: citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Ireland / Northern Ireland.”
Caudet added that only after sufficient progress in these areas are achieved will discussions could start regarding the future involvement of the UK in EU’s activities.
It appears that the UK’s negotiations with the European 27 may not be going exactly according to plan. There’s speculation in the media about the so-called no-deal Brexit — a situation, which would see the UK leaving the union in 2019 without new arrangements in place.
The UK has bold ambitions for its space sector and wants to see it grow to 10 percent of the global market by 2030 from the current 6.6 percent.
“The space sector is critically important to the UK economy,” Johnson said at the Oct. 13 launch event. “To achieve our ambitious growth plan for the sector, it is going to be important to get us into more parts of the value chain.” Johnson said the UK hopes its planned spaceports would attract further business.
However, some UK space officials, due to the industry’s international nature, remain concerned.
Many had speculated whether Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd would be able to continue manufacturing payloads for Galileo. The firm signed a 140-million-euro contract in June with Galileo prime contractor OHB-Systems AG to build eight navigations payloads for the next batch of Galileo satellite.
However, the contract was signed a year and a half before the UK is due to leave the EU, so it could hardly be considered precedent for post-Brexit cooperation.