The current furore over UK participation in the EU Galileo Satellite Navigation programme shows how important space industry and research is to the UK. It also demonstrates that the government needs to advocate for and support its space sector through and beyond Brexit. If this doesn’t happen, UK space engineers and scientists face a cliff edge in March 2019.
There are initial signs that the government recognises this. At the first ever UK Defence Science conference this week, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson pledged an uplift in expertise to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the space domain, and talked about “alternative systems” in the crucial area of satellite navigation.
Speaking at the conference, Defence Minister Guto Bebb said: “Space is a vital part our economy, with an industry worth £14 billion a year. With the launch of this Strategy, we are setting our aspirations much higher, to ensure that our industry continues to benefit from this growth in satellite technology.
We are investing millions into Britain’s most innovative companies to help us launch forward in the space domain.”
How many millions exactly and whether they will be sufficient to compensate UK universities and companies for the impact of Brexit on the industry remains to be seen. The government is already planning investments in the UK spaceport programme, in addition to the substantial investment already made in the National Satellite Test Facility at Harwell.
This additional funding and the entering into force of the Space Industry Act 2018 are exciting prospects for commercial space opportunities and pioneering research. However, these measures alone will not mitigate the loss of UK participation in EU space programmes.
By 2030 the UK aims to create an extra 100,000 jobs in the space sector. More space engineers, scientists and technicians are going to be needed. But the CBI reports that 61% of its members are not confident there will be enough people available in the future with the necessary skills to fill their high-skilled jobs.
Universities supply the brilliant minds needed for UK space engineering and science to thrive. They produce approximately 4000 physicists and 36000 engineers per year. Universities and research institutes think up the missions, develop new technologies and build space instruments to find out more about the Earth, astronomy and space science.
However, there are high proportions of EU nationals working in university science and engineering departments. This includes areas such as robotics, materials and artificial intelligence where there are particular shortages of domestic UK researchers.
This makes UK universities vulnerable to a ‘Brexodus’ of top academic talent over the next few years.
The UK Space Industry is also vulnerable: in a recent House of Lords EU Internal Market Select Committee panel, Dr Chris Mutlow, director of RALSpace said: “even with access to the European Union, we struggle to get engineers … we have seen a massive reduction in the number of people from the European Union applying for the posts we have”.
Horizon 2020, the EU’s multi-billion pound funding programme, allocates a quarter of its funding for space research to the UK out of all of its 28 member states. This is an astonishing ratio and a tribute to the high quality of UK science and engineering research.
Professor John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society and Emeritus Professor of Space Science at the Open University added that the UK has been resoundingly successful at leveraging Principal Investigator roles to boost UK science return on space projects and missions.
It is both the European talent and the European funding which enable the UK to be a world leader in space research and innovation. For this to continue, it is vital that the UK have access to H2020 and its successor: Framework Programme 9.
UK research has had significant success with the EU Marie Sklowdowska Curie and European Research Council Fellowship schemes, and many British staff and students get international experience through the Erasmus+ mobility scheme.
In the future, it will be essential for there to be minimal barriers for EU researchers and students to work and study here and for UK researchers and students to be able to work and study in Europe.
The UK space sector is export-focused and sits within tightly integrated EU supply chains. Launching rockets and satellites is an expensive business and it makes sense to share costs.
Some space activities, by nature, cannot succeed without large-scale multinational collaboration and this depends on the efficient movement of information, people and equipment
Can we meet our ambitious space sector targets? It will all depend upon how attractive and accessible the UK will look to the world after Brexit. The UK government need to do much more to support its successful, but vulnerable, space industry.
By Lucy Berthoud, Spacecraft Systems Engineer, with a PhD in Space Physics from ISAE, Toulouse and a degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of Bristol. She has worked in the Space Industry for twenty-five years on interplanetary spacecraft missions to Mars, Venus, Mercury, Moon and comets.