The British Space Explorer’s Guide to Brexit
Our FAQ guide to British space exploration after Brexit.
Here at the National Space Centre, we normally try to steer clear of politics and instead celebrate the amazing achievements of space exploration past, present, and future.
But ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016, we’ve had a lot of questions about what Brexit means for Britain’s involvement in space.
So here’s our attempt to answer the most common questions, based on what we know so far from the UK Space Agency, the EU, and UK space researchers. Of course, all of this is unofficial and subject to change as Brexit negotiations progress over the coming months and years.
Space exploration is an international endeavour and has been since the dawn of the space age. In the 1950s and 60s, the United States and the Soviet Union relied on talented scientists and engineers from Germany, Britain, and the rest of the world, as well as from their own countries, to build the very first rockets and satellites.
Today, space exploration is more international and collaborative than ever before. The International Space Station is an excellent example of this, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Space exploration is ambitious, expensive, and inherently global as spacecraft and satellites orbit far above national borders many times a day. It requires cutting-edge knowledge and engineering from around the world. Today it’s unrealistic for one country to explore and work in space completely alone – and even China’s nascent and growing space industry is showing signs of going global.
Does leaving the EU mean Tim Peake won’t get a second space mission?
When Tim Peake launched into space in December 2015, the UK celebrated its first ‘official’ British astronaut. What this meant was that the British government had paid for Tim’s flight by contributing to the European Space Agency (ESA)’s astronaut programme (unlike Helen Sharman’s flight in 1991 which was funded by the Soviet Union and private companies).
But technically Tim is not a British astronaut. He is an ESA astronaut of British nationality, just like Samantha Cristoforetti is an ESA astronaut of Italian nationality.
After the Brexit vote, some people confused the EU with ESA and assumed that the UK would also be leaving ESA, meaning Tim would be disqualified from a second space flight.
Thankfully for any aspiring British space explorers, the UK will continue to be a part of ESA after Brexit.
ESA is separate from the EU, and is an international organisation formed in 1975. The UK was one of the ten founding countries. Today ESA has 22 members, and it doesn’t just include European countries – Canada is also involved with ESA missions by paying into the ESA budget as a Cooperating State.
In December 2016, six months after the Brexit vote, the UK re-committed itself to ESA by promising more than 1.4 billion Euros to ESA missions over five years. This includes 41 million Euros for the International Space Station and the possibility of a second space mission for Tim Peake.
The next meeting to agree ESA missions and funding will be in late 2019, and the UK intends to stay involved, even after Brexit.
Will the UK still be involved in space missions?
Absolutely! British scientists, engineers, and factories are already deeply involved in many upcoming space missions that are yet to launch, or even still in the planning stages. The UK has a great depth of space expertise, particularly in building mini satellites and Mars rovers, X-ray and gamma ray astronomy, and Earth observation from space.
The UK will continue to be part of ESA, even after Brexit (see previous question), and hence it will continue to be involved in upcoming ESA space missions such as the ExoMars rover in 2020 (rover built by Airbus in the UK), the Solar Orbiter mission in 2020 (spacecraft built by Airbus in the UK), and the JUICE mission to Jupiter’s moons in 2022 (one of the instruments led by Imperial College London).
The UK will also continue to be involved in major international space missions beyond ESA, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, for which the UK led one of the key infrared instruments called MIRI, and SVOM, an upcoming X-ray telescope developed by China and France, with University of Leicester scientists building the X-ray mirror.
The UK is also investing heavily in its local space industry. The planned spaceports for the north of Scotland and Cornwall, and the government support for the development of the British Skylon spaceplane are great examples of this. UK space companies have built 40% of the small satellites currently in orbit, employ nearly 40,000 people in the UK, and hope to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030. Currently the UK space industry has a total income of about £14 billion.
But all of this comes with a big caveat – space is international. We don’t yet know what kind of trade barriers will be in place between the UK and Europe after Brexit, and how easy it will be to move people and spacecraft across the UK border. A typical space mission might see a detector built in the UK, tested in France or Germany, and fitted into the bigger spacecraft in the United States before launch. Within the EU, this movement of spacecraft, scientists, and engineers is easy and essential.
If the UK is to remain a desirable place to build and operate spacecraft after Brexit, it needs to make sure that space hardware and people can still move easily across its borders.
What about EU-funded space missions like Galileo and Copernicus?
After Brexit, the UK will continue to contribute to and be involved with many international space missions, funded by various space agencies such as ESA and NASA (see previous question).
But there are three current space programmes that are specifically funded by the EU – Galileo, Copernicus, and the Space Surveillance and Tracking programme. This is where it gets tricky after Brexit.
Once the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer be contributing to these EU-funded programmes, and so UK scientists and engineers may not be eligible to bid for contracts to build, operate, or access sensitive data on these types of space missions.
Galileo is a set of 30 satellites that give high-accuracy GPS signals for smartphones, car sat navs, and many other applications such as traffic signals and bank transactions. This set of satellites allows Europe to control its own GPS, rather than rely on the American, Russian, or Chinese military GPS satellites.
As of October 2018, 26 Galileo satellites are in orbit, many built by companies in the UK. Anyone around the world can use the basic signal from Galileo which gives a location accuracy of 1 metre, but only paying users can access its cutting-edge encrypted signals which give an accuracy of 1 centimetre.
If the UK wants to use the high accuracy signals after Brexit, it will have to continue paying to the Galileo programme. The UK was also meant to run one of the ground control centres, but since Brexit, this contract has now gone to Spain.
The UK Space Agency is currently exploring the possibility of building and launching its own British navigation set of satellites, at an estimated cost of up to £5 billion.
Copernicus is an Earth observation programme that uses a set of satellites in Earth orbit, along with ground-based sensors, to study the Earth’s air quality, climate, oceans, plants, and natural disasters. This EU-funded programme hasn’t been in the Brexit news as much as Galileo, perhaps because there aren’t the same security and military applications, but it’s just as vital to understanding and protecting life on Earth.
The Copernicus programme is already releasing images and data from its Sentinel satellites, which are publicly available to anyone in the world. But the UK is heavily involved in both building the satellites and analysing the data that comes back, and there are doubts about whether it would receive similar contracts for an EU-funded programme after Brexit, unless it agrees a Norway-style deal and stays in the European Economic Area.
Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) is an EU-funded programme to track the thousands of pieces of space debris that could cause a threat to satellites in Earth orbit. In 2015, the UK was one of five EU countries participating in this tracking programme. After Brexit, the UK may continue to participate in SST, if it stays in the European Economic Area, but this is subject to the Brexit deal.
What impact will Brexit have on space research and space companies in the UK?
This question is probably the biggest unknown at the moment – future space research and industry in the UK depends entirely on what sort of deal the UK makes with the EU after Brexit.
Space companies in the UK will want easy movement of goods across UK borders in order to build and test spacecraft across Europe.
Industry and universities will want to be able to attract the brightest people from around the world to work on space projects in the UK – but this requires an immigration process that makes it easy for international researchers and their families to move to the UK.
There’s also the question of funding for space research – much of it currently comes from EU research grants such as Horizon 2020. At the moment, it’s unclear whether British researchers will be eligible for these grants after Brexit , or if the UK government will provide extra funding for space research after it leaves the EU.
Speaking about the role of the UK in European space programmes, Professor John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society and Emeritus Professor of Space Science at The Open University has said,
“In the UK by any metric it’s clear that we’ve been incredibly successful in exploiting these opportunities, whether it’s landing on a comet, as with Rosetta, [or] observing the cosmic microwave background, there are many, many examples of great success with major UK involvement. But on average we do that with 30% of our funding coming from the EU, without which we just would not be able to play leading roles in these missions.”
But as space is an inherently global industry, the UK will want to ensure open borders for space skills and hardware if it wishes to remain as a competitive and attractive place for space after Brexit.
Of course, the UK and the EU are still negotiating what Brexit will look like, so stay tuned for future developments!
About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.