EU 'dithering' won't hold back UK from space as huge new deal is struck

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Science Minister George Freeman has said while the EU continues to block Britain from accessing a number of key science programmes, its “dithering” will not stop the UK from working with the European Space Agency. The UK was promised a slice of Horizon Europe’s funding for vital research in a post-Brexit package – but with no movement on this trade deal, the country has had to put in its own money to ensure vital research is not held up. And now Britain has secured £1.84billion investment for the space agency, of which it was a founding member.  The ESA is a key organisation consisting of 22 members which contribute to a range of international space missions and innovative commercial programmes that are critical for the world’s satellite infrastructure. 

The ESA is independent of the EU. It ensures that “European nations will always have access to space and to its benefits for the planet, society and economy”. And it is also an example of how the UK can still cooperate with the EU on joint projects that are separate from political disputes. 

But unlike the ESA, there are a number of programmes which are controlled by the EU that the UK was set to take part in, despite leaving the bloc after Brexit. It was agreed as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that Britian would join the £80billion Horizon Europe, as well as Copernicus and Euratom. 

However, the bloc later told Britain that it cannot join until the Norhtern Ireland Protocol dispute is smoothed over, despite the political feud having nothing to do with science. Nearly two years on, and Britain’s access remains blocked, with the delay causing huge headache and concerns for scientists that were promised EU grants as part of the schemes.

Luckily, this “dithering” will not impact the UK’s contribution to the ESA, argues Mr Freeman. He wrote in a comment piece for the Telegraph: “The European Space Agency, of which the UK is a founding member, is a unique organisation that stands separate to the EU, built on the solid foundation of international collaboration. As I have always made clear, our greatest strength – particularly in innovative fields like space exploration and R&D – lies in the ability to collaborate across borders, bringing together world-leading talent regardless of nationality or politics.

“As the EU continues to delay the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, Euratom and Copernicus despite the commitments made over 16 months ago in the TCA, our commitment to supporting our industrial research and innovation sectors, and to forging and nurturing strong multilateral relationships in Europe and beyond, remains more important than ever.”

This comes after Britain secured a £1.84billion investment for the ESA, following a European Space Agency Council of Ministers meeting. The investment will cover a number of programmes different programmes, from space sustainability to supporting the UK-built Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover, which is set to launch to Mars in 2028 and will see British industry play a leading role in developing a new platform.

£315m will go towards Earth observation and climate programmes, marking a 45 percent increase. Funds that were set aside for Copernicus participation will no support the sector as the delay to Britain’s access to the programme drags on. 

The UK will also play a leading role in commercially focused programmes, including communications and navigation, and further drive innovation in the satellite industry.

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Britain will also lead on the Vigil space weather mission, which will travel to a point in deep space called L5 and give advance warning of dangerous solar storms, strengthening and securing observational capabilities, while also supporting expertise such as that delivered by the UK Met Office’s Space Weather Operations Centre. 

The investment will also let UK set the standards for satellite climate measurements, with funding secured for further development of the TRUTHS mission, first proposed by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory to deliver a 10x increase in the accuracy of climate measurements.

Mr Freemand said: “The rapidly growing global commercial space sector is driving a new space race for geopolitical and commercial soft-power. This is the frontline of our science superpower mission. 

“Space is a fundamentally collaborative endeavour, so the European Space Agency Council of Ministers was an important opportunity to deepen our international relationships with the goal of advancing space technology for the benefit of all.”

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“I’m delighted to return from the meeting with such a strong package of commitments, as well as being able to provide support for our outstanding Earth observation sector, to protect it from the uncertainty caused as a result of the EU’s delays, as we continue seeking Copernicus association.”

Britain has committed £615million to the ESA’s core space science budget, securing numerous opportunities for UK companies to bid for high-value contracts and establishing new scientific leadership roles for UK universities. This will bring a huge boost to the UK’s burgeoning space sector, which is worth over £16billion and is continuing to grow. 

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency, said: “From protecting our own planet to exploring new worlds, we invest in these programmes because they benefit humanity and deliver a strong return to the UK economy.

“Our membership of ESA adds significant firepower to our national space ambitions, complementing the UK Space Agency’s work to catalyse investment, deliver new missions and capabilities, and champion the power of space for businesses and people across the country.”



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