Brexit not a threat for UK space sector

Brexit won't limit the opportunities of UK engineers and technology companies to participate in cutting-edge space projects coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA), David Parker, former head of the UK Space Agency, told E&T at an ESA conference in London. Parker left the UK Space Agency in April this year to join ESA as director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration.

E&T: What does Brexit mean for the UK’s cooperation with the European Space Agency?

David Parker: The European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organisation, it's not part of the European Union, it is not an EU research organisation. The UK will continue to be a member of ESA as long as it wishes to be. ESA has 22 member states. Not all the member states of the EU are in ESA and not all the member states of ESA are in the EU – Norway and Switzerland, for example, are in ESA but not in the EU, Canada is an associated member, so from that point of view, Brexit will make no difference at all when it comes to the UK’s cooperation with ESA. It actually presents an opportunity for the UK space community to re-emphasise the opportunities and benefits for science and for the industry and economics that space activities offer. It is an opportunity for the community to increase its efforts and its presence in ESA.

I have only joined the agency in the past six months but its great to see the amount of energy, the dynamism that there is in the place and the great ideas for the future. We are at the stage when the International Space Station is a fully operational laboratory in space and the cost of access is coming down. There is a growing number of ways in which the station can be used. There is an array of opportunities for scientific and commercial partnerships with the space agency.

E&T: How important is international collaboration in the space sector?

Parker: International collaboration in the space sector is everything. In case of the UK, the first space project back in 1962 was a collaboration with Nasa. Almost everything that the UK does in space is a collaboration and everything that we do in ESA is an international collaboration. The space station is dependent on a bunch of countries – there are the Russians, Americans, Japanese, Canadians and all the ESA member states, and that has survived and grown over all those difficult years that we have had in politics. This collaborative spirit is also very important for all the big challenges we are facing at the moment, such as using space to understand the climate change – all the world’s satellites are working together to help us with that.

There is also a lot of collaboration going on when it comes to support during natural disasters – all of the world’s space agencies are sharing data to provide support during natural disasters. There is also the contribution of space towards global telecommunications, think about the global networks of telecommunication satellites, we are talking about terabit satellites now, it’s already happening. I was on a plane last week in Norway and I was using my iPad as if I was connected to a normal network and it was via a satellite. It’s part of everyday life.

E&T: In the UK, everyone knows about the mission of Tim Peake but the name of the European Space Agency still remains somewhat obscure for many. How important is the UK for the European Space Agency and what are the opportunities that UK engineers can gain from the UK’s membership of it?

Parker: The UK contributes about 10 per cent to ESA’s budget. Its contributions are very important for the science programme, in telecommunications and exploration. But most importantly, ESA allows UK engineers to participate in the kind of scale projects and ambitious projects, which couldn’t happen if the UK acted alone. For example, at the moment, we are building  a rover to go to Mars. The ExoMars rover will be the first European rover to land on the Red Planet. We are also talking about the next steps beyond the space station – building the first deep-space spacecraft with humans aboard, the type of Star Trek’s Enterprise. And the UK has a chance to get aboard this project with Nasa, it’s just going to the drawing board right now and the UK is very lucky to be involved in that.

E&T: We are in a sort of transitional era when it comes to space exploration with all the commercial entities coming in, start-ups, new countries. What opportunities does this opening space sector present to engineering and technology companies?

Parker: There are many ways to get involved with ESA. There is the traditional arrangement of placing contracts and providing research facilities for scientists to do their work, but lately we are also introducing more and more partnership arrangements where we have an overall strategy but individual companies or industries can bring ideas of their own that they want to deliver and make happen, and we are working together towards that. I can give you one example – we are putting a commercially run platform on the outside of the International Space Station for demonstrating telecommunications technologies, Earth observation technologies, whatever you want, and we just provide the means for you to get into space and be there and do the science and develop the technology that you want to do.

E&T: Do you think there is enough awareness of these opportunities in the engineering community?

Parker: I think the awareness is growing actually. I see more and more articles in the press about this revolution that is just happening in the space sector that space is diverting from being this government, big-budget thing, to being something which you can be part of at a far lower price, for example with CubeSats [a type of miniaturised satellite], which you can get for a price of tens of thousands dollars to space and run your own projects.

E&T: Why is this increasing involvement important?

Parker: This involvement is central to the economy. The space sector, its economy, is growing at 7 per cent per year, which is faster than the economy of China, so it’s a great opportunity. It’s also important for solving societal challenges such as understanding climate change or connecting the billions of people that currently don’t have access to the internet – satellites are the way to do that. And it also feeds the soul – the unravelling of the mysteries of the universe and understanding how basic physics works. A lot of this can only be done by going into space.

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