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New advances for the new decade - the UK plans for the future in space

John Worthy


United Kingdom

At the dawn of this new decade, the UK is continuing to expand its plans for the future of space, both in enhancing strategic national space infrastructure and in fostering a business climate supporting the space sector overall. Following the notable advances made by the UK over the last ten years, we highlight some of the major forthcoming developments in the UK, supporting the objective of achieving a 10% share of the world's space business by 2030. UK government policy for space – after the new Conservative government took office in late December 2019, its announced policy objectives include a number of key priorities in space, such as:
  • Plans to establish and promote the National Space Council and build a far reaching UK Space Strategy, joining the aims of government in space and the demands of industry in expanding the space sector opportunities.
  • Backing for a new approach to funding high risk, high payoff research in emerging technologies, including space. This will be supported by plans to unlock long term capital from pension funds to commercialise scientific discoveries. 
  • A fast track immigration scheme for highly skilled scientists/researchers, one of the key ingredients in a vibrant space economy. 
Through this and other recent announcements, the UK government is setting the tone for ongoing growth of the space sector over the coming years. For industry players and other organisations, there should also be opportunities to help shape the nation's Space Strategy, via the National Space Council, among other channels. For those looking at access to talent and capital, one of the key issues will be how the new plans offer a smooth and effective pathway to the right staff and funding sources, in order to deliver business growth. Industry will be looking closely at the further details of these plans as they emerge.
Perhaps the biggest point of attention will be the scale of the government budget available to support the new Space Strategy: the UK government's domestic spend on non–military space activities has traditionally lagged behind those of its fellow ESA member states such as France, Germany and Italy. Long demanded by industry, a centrally supported space strategy, promoting opportunities for collaboration with overseas territories which are not ESA members, would be seen to allay concerns about the potential negative effects of Brexit.
UK strategic space infrastructure:
  • GNSS – as the UK government moves to build on its initial £92 million analysis of requirements for an independent global navigation by satellite system (GNSS), industry players are looking forward to an announcement about the shape of the new programme, expected to follow the outcome of the recent general election. As the UK's role in providing key elements of the Galileo programme has been wound down as part of the Brexit process, the focus is on how the UK plans to establish and operate an independent capability. Among the major questions will be how the UK GNSS programme is set up to reflect the strategic national requirements and enable the longer term industry opportunities across space segment, ground segment and terminals. Also, both government and bidders will be keen to see how lessons can be learned from Galileo and applied to this next generation GNSS programme. Fieldfisher partner John Worthy led the external legal team advising the European Commission on the Galileo programme for around 4 years. 
  • Skynet 6 – following the UK MoD's issue of the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire for the Skynet 6 Service Delivery Wrap (SDW) phase, bid teams are now shaping up. The SDW is designed to deliver a smooth transition from the current PFI based concession contract which comes to an end in 2022. As other consortia come together, Serco has announced that it is teaming with Lockheed Martin, Inmarsat and CGI. Meantime, the MoD is planning to place a contract with Airbus Defence and Space for the long lead items required for Skynet 6A to mitigate the risk of delivery delays. For both UK GNSS and Skynet 6 programmes, a critical point of interest will be the procurement strategy which the UK government chooses to adopt, balancing its desire for responsive, world leading capabilities with a commercial model which delivers value for money.
  • Earth observation – in his inaugural speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson flagged a plan to promote the UK's independent capability in earth observation systems. Industry will be looking forward to hearing further details of these plans.
UK launch - in this new year, many are eagerly awaiting the next steps in the development of UK launch capabilities, enabling spaceports to support the growing market demand for smallsat launches. With the new UK government in place, attention is focussed on the forthcoming details of the regulatory environment under the Space Industry Act. How far will it offer clarity about the terms of regulatory licences, so as to enable industry to cost their development and operational plans and pursue their financing plans? Will it reflect the need of industry players for a reasonable liability framework? In addition to embracing both vertical and horizontal launch, how far will the rules address the potential for multiple standards which may be applicable where a US manufactured launcher is operated from the UK? Having a clear, transparent and pragmatic set of rules surrounding the launch operations is a vital element in enabling the spaceports and launch operators to close their business case and secure the financing needed.
Increased UK funding for ESA – building on its recent funding patterns, the UK signed up to budget commitments of £374 million per year over the coming 5 years at the ESA Ministerial gathering in late 2019. This amounts to a 15% increase in its overall contributions (equating to around a 23 % increase in euro terms, allowing for foreign exchange variations) and recognises the importance of space to the UK. Among the key areas supported by the UK contributions are telecommunications, especially use of 5G/satellite broadband, climate science and earth observation. Importantly, none of these funding lines will be affected by the UK's Brexit plans, as ESA is not an EU body.
Copernicus - looking ahead, Britain hopes that the funding for ESA will position the UK favourably for the next round of the €6.7 billion Copernicus programme, Europe's advanced earth observation space mission. While Copernicus is officially led by the EU, it is managed by ESA and the UK hopes to be able to qualify for an increased share of the programme, which is expected to offer valuable insights in the fight against climate change, as well as commercial opportunities.

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