What Will Brexit Do to UK’s Space Program?

UK_space_agencyIt looks like the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union (EU). If Parliament agrees. And the next Prime Minister — who won’t take office until October — respects the vote of  the people last week. And the UK doesn’t have another vote that reverses the decision.

Of course, not all of the United Kingdom might leave. Scotland is talking about having another vote on independence and applying to join the EU as a separate nation. And there is also a movement to united Northern Ireland with Ireland, which is an EU member and does not seem inclined to leave anytime soon.

The departure — which will take at least two years — will not affect the UK’s membership in the European Space Agency (ESA), which is separate from the EU. An independent Scotland would have to join both the EU and ESA. It’s not clear how complex those processes would be at this time.

The EU has become increasingly involved in space with the Galileo navigational satellite constellation and the Copernicus environment monitoring program. The UK’s roles in those programs are likely to change.

A British company, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), is prime contractor for Galileo’s payload electronics. Twenty-two Galileo satellites have been ordered from OHB SE of Bremen, Germany. Most of them have been built and all were contracted well before the Brexit issue.

The question concerns future Galileo satellites. The European Commission, through ESA, is managing a competition for a fresh set of Galileo spacecraft that, in principle, will look almost identical to those built by OHB and SSTL.

ESA has set a deadline of July 19 for industry to bid on the next Galileo satellite series. OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs has said his company is bidding the same OHB-SSTL team that won the previous order, although he concedes the consequences of Brexit have been a concern.

Norway is part of the Galileo program after having signed a security treaty with the European Union. Whether such a treaty would suffice to permit a non-EU member from having a role as central as SSTL’s in Galileo is unclear….

The current seven-year financial commitment [to Copernicus] runs to 2020, with a mid-term review scheduled for late this year. With Britain now starting what apparently will be a two-year countdown on exit, what will Britain’s role be in the final years of this program?
There are also questions about how splitting from the EU will affect the UK government’s commitment to increasing the size of the nation’s space industry. The government of Prime Minister David Cameron — who resigned following the vote last week — has been pouring money into the sector. Whether that continues — and how the EU withdrawal impacts the industry’s ability to compete — will not be known for many months.