British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Spaceport Cornwall, the future British Virgin Orbit base, in June. The activation of UK launchers and space ports is one element of a broader national space strategy unveiled last month. (credit: Virgin Orbit)

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It was a line that threw a thousand jokes. When the British government published a national space strategy document On September 27, it included a preface by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who decided to hijack the government’s concept of a “global Britain” in the post-Brexit era.

The report, Johnson wrote, proposed “a plan that will see us play a leading role on the international stage, with global Britain becoming galactic Britain as we work with other nations to pursue exciting missions. and with the UN to set the standards that will ensure space is used responsibly and safely.

“At the heart of this strategy, we recognize and clearly state that we see this as part of a global race for the new space economy, and the UK has some very strong assets that we want to play on,” Freeman said. .

The idea of ​​a ‘galactic Britain’, whatever that means, sparked laughter as the country struggled to find its bearings in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. At least, more than one pointed out, in a galactic Britain the suns would never set over the British Empire.

Comments on galactic Britain diverted attention from the substance of the report, which was an effort by the government to describe exactly what role it saw Britain playing in a growing global space economy, especially now that ‘it was no longer part of the European Union but a member of the European Space Agency.

“At the heart of this strategy, we recognize and clearly state that we see this as part of a global race for the new space economy, and the UK has some very strong assets that we want to play on,” said George Freeman, who was appointed UK government science minister last month, in a presentation at the UK Space Conference on the day the report was released.

The report was a mix of goals, pillars and ten point plans for Britain’s future in space. The report listed five goals for the UK in space: to develop its space economy, promote an “open and stable international order” in space, support space science research and inspire the public, protect national interests in space. and use space, and use space to support citizens of the UK and the world.

The UK would achieve these goals through four pillars. One is to develop the country’s space sector in a number of ways, such as promoting the development of launchers and space ports, implementing “modern” space regulations, and accessing finance and insurance. A second pillar is devoted to international collaboration, mainly through ESA but also directly with other countries, including the United States. A third pillar aims to make Britain a “superpower” in space science and technology by participating in ESA programs and increasing defense investment in space. The fourth and final pillar concerns the development of “resilient” space capabilities, from communications and navigation to satellite launch and maintenance.

This is a lot, which the government acknowledged in the report. “The government cannot continue all activities related to space now. We must make difficult strategic choices and target resources to pursue the highest impact opportunities and the critical cross catalysts that will lay the foundation for a prosperous future in space, ”he said (emphasis in original)

This prioritization took the form of a ten point plan identifying the initial priority areas. These range from becoming the “leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe by 2030” and “establishing global leadership in space sustainability” to using space services to modernize the country’s transport system. .

The ambition of the report, to say the least, has won over many players in the UK space industry. “Shifting space to the top of the priority list in government via the new national space strategy is welcome and can help free up the UK sector to spur green economic growth and make meaningful contributions to the agenda. upgrade, ”said Rajeev Suri, CEO of London. satellite operator based in Inmarsat.

“The UK’s first National Space Strategy highlights the potential of end-to-end space capabilities provided by the UK space industry,” said Edward F. Jamieson, Business Development Manager for Government Programs for NanoAvionics UK, a manufacturer of small satellites. “The importance of small satellite technology in the further development of the UK space industry, as recognized in the strategy, should not be underestimated. ”

But, while the strategy was long on ambition, it lacked details. The goals were all very qualitative, and even the specifics of the ten-point plan offered few concrete metrics other than achieving the “first small satellite launch from Europe in 2022” and bringing in the leading small-launch provider. satellites in Europe by 2030.

In fact, the report abandoned a quantitative measure that the UK government used for industry. In recent years, the government has set itself the goal of capturing 10% of the global space economy by 2030. In 2019, the UK space sector generated £ 16.4 billion from a global space economy which he estimated at £ 270 billion, or about 6%. But the strategy paper, while mentioning the size of the UK space sector, makes no mention of a 10% target.

The report notes that the UK space sector has grown by 4.7% annually over the past four years. But he also said the global space economy is expected to grow at an annual rate of 5.6% through 2030.

The omission was deliberate, a government official said during a panel later at the online conference. “It’s been quite a while since that initial 10% target was set,” said Rebecca Evernden, director of space at the Ministry of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“We concluded that we needed a more sophisticated way to measure growth in different parts of the UK space sector, which is less awkward, if you will, than a single overall growth target which is somewhat subdued. to the vagaries of exchange rates and other factors that may possibly skew the big picture of what is a very strong growth story in the UK, “she said. The government is working on a other set of measures, but she gave no details on what they would be or when they would be ready.

Another reason for dropping the 10% target, perhaps, is that the UK was not gaining ground. The report notes that the UK space sector has grown by 4.7% annually over the past four years. Corn a technical annex to the report said the world space economy is expected to grow at an annual rate of 5.6% through 2030. It is difficult to gain market share when your national space economy is not growing as fast as the world space economy.

Another detail missing from the report was funding. The strategy document does not commit the government to any new funding to support civil, military or commercial space activities.

Freeman told the conference that the lack of information on funding was due to a national budget, called the Comprehensive Spending Review, due to be released in October and would include those details. “Let me reassure you,” he said, “we wouldn’t launch this strategy now if we weren’t fully committed to it”.

Another uncertainty concerns the UK’s relationship with the EU after Brexit. When the two governments reached a final agreement late last year on Britain’s exit from the EU, they agreed that the UK would no longer have access to the secure signals of the system. Galileo satellite navigation – it could continue to use the public signal, like the rest of the world – and UK companies could no longer work on the program.

With Brexit looming, the UK government has suggested it will pursue its own satellite navigation system. This interest, according to many industry players, led the government to partner with Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global to acquire OneWeb after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. OneWeb executives say they are interested in offering navigation services, although that may have to wait for a second-generation constellation. The strategy only states that the government “assesses the case for investing in resilient position, navigation and synchronization (PNT) capabilities through a mix of innovative new ground and space technologies”.

“We are already behind the rest of the world,” Stanniland said. “If we don’t get past them, we’ll never catch up. “

The situation with the EU’s other major space program, the Copernicus series of Earth observation satellites, is more complex. Under last year’s Brexit deal, the UK can continue to be part of Copernicus, but the deal needed to implement this cooperation has not been finalized. Copernicus is also a joint program between the EU and ESA, with the UK being a major player in the ESA aspect of the effort.

Copernicus “is a vital part of our ecosystem,” Freeman said, but did not elaborate on the status of this implementation agreement with the EU.

“The UK may have left the European Political Union, but we are not leaving the European scientific, cultural and research community,” he said, noting that he supported Remain in the referendum on Brexit in 2016. “We want to make sure that, after our withdrawal from the EU, we become an even stronger player in this research community.”

While many industrialists hailed the new strategy, at least one executive at a conference expressed a sense of urgency for the UK to put more emphasis on space as it finds its place in Europe and worldwide.

“We are already behind the rest of the world,” said Andrew Stanniland, CEO of Thales Alenia Space UK. “If we don’t get past them, we’ll never catch up. ”

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