ESA Solar Orbiter

UK commits to continuing membership of European Space Agency

Image credit: Nasa/ESA

The UK Space Agency has committed to contributing £374m a year to continue the country’s involvement in the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA is one of the world’s most active space agencies, with collaboration across the continent allowing for missions beyond the scope of any individual European country. It works with other space agencies on programmes such as the International Space Station and ExoMars (an astrobiology research programme) as well as leading its own projects, including the ‘Galileo’ satellite navigation system. In addition to pursuing space exploration and satellite services, ESA is heavily involved in efforts to monitor and address climate change.

The ESA is independent of, but closely associated with, the EU: not every EU member state is a member of the ESA, but just two of ESA’s 22 members are non-EU members (Switzerland and Norway). Each member contributes to the ESA budget – which it can decide how to allocate to projects depending on its priorities – and collaborates on missions. In 2019, the UK contributed £367m to the agency (equivalent to approximately five euros per capita).

The UK has now agreed to contribute a further £374m a year for the next five years in order to be able to continue working on the international space programme. These will be the UK’s largest annual contributions to ESA to date.

While British politicians have consistently expressed enthusiasm for continuing to collaborate with other European countries on research following Brexit (including through ESA and the Horizon science funding programme), the UK’s future in ESA has remained uncertain. In June 2018, UK companies were shut out of the bidding process for Galileo contracts, with the UK having “observer” status on key decisions relating to the project.

Andrea Leadsom, the UK's business secretary, said: “We are delighted to be making this investment in ESA today. From improving communication and connectivity, to helping us monitor the impact of climate change and protect our power grid, our membership of this international organisation will further our position as a space, innovation and climate superpower.”

The UK’s continued membership will secure its immediate future in ESA projects, such as returning the first samples from Mars; an early-warning system for solar storms; research in space technology to deliver high-speed mobile technology; removing space debris, and the ‘Lunar Gateway’ - an ambitious space station orbiting the Moon. The UK has also committed more than £200m in Earth Observation via ESA, including a UK-led mission to help tackle climate change with a space-based climate-observing system.

Following increased contributions from its members - totalling €14.4bn for the next five years - ESA has re-confirmed that previous astronauts, including Brit Tim Peake, would return to the International Space Station before 2024. ESA will be able to increase the number and ambition of its missions, including missions to use gravitational waves to study black holes and to intercept and study a comet within the solar system.

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