UK space policy is ‘uncertain and disjointed’, MPs say
Image credit: Dreamstime (editing by Beatriz Valero)
In a new report published by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, a cross-party group of MPs has called for regular scrutiny of the OneWeb investment.
The Members of Parliament have described the UK's approach to space policy as “uncertain and disjointed”, despite the industry's £16bn valuation.
The Committee has said it is “concerned” that the first-ever UK satellite launch has been plagued by licensing delays and has raised doubts regarding the benefits of the taxpayer-funded £400m stake in OneWeb.
The government's investment in the satellite company – as part of a consortium with India's Bharti Global – was announced in July 2020 and described as a means to rescue the company from bankruptcy. At the time, the move was seen as an attempt to give the UK a platform in the highly coveted low Earth orbit (LEO) space, providing internet connections for businesses and governments around the world.
However, the committee said success from the "unusual" investment is yet to be seen and urged the government to use its "golden share" – which gives it special voting rights – to seek assurances that OneWeb will manufacture its Gen2 constellation in the UK.
“The government’s purchase of OneWeb was carried out under exceptional circumstances and it is still unclear what benefits the investment will bring to the UK public," the report said.
“Given the unusual investment, the government should avoid making similar purchases.
“Further, given the considerable public investment, the government should report to Parliament on the state of the government’s investment in OneWeb on a yearly basis.”
The report also expressed concern about the licensing delays that led to the postponing of the UK’s first-ever satellite launch, which was expected to take place in October 2022 from Cornwall Spaceport.
The mission does not yet have a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority to do so.
The MPs also said it was “concerning” that the UK is reliant on the US’s Global Positioning System and needs to secure its own Position, Navigation and Timing capabilities – which is needed for critical national infrastructure and defence purposes.
“The UK space and satellites industry is world-class," said Greg Clark, chairman of the Committee. “From Harwell to Glasgow, our committee saw first-hand the ingenuity and talent driving forward global discoveries.
“However, the government’s uncertain and disjointed approach is not realising the industry’s full potential.
“Better cross-government coordination is sorely needed to reflect that the space sector is not just economically important, but is central to the UK’s defence, national security, and foreign relations.”
MPs also pointed out the impact of Brexit on the UK's participation in international space research programmes, such as the Earth observation programme Copernicus and the Galileo satellite navigation project.
Despite an initial agreement for the UK to obtain associate membership of these research programmes, the EU has been reportedly delaying the process as a response to the country's attempt to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol.
To make up for this situation, the Committee requested the publication of a ‘Plan B’ by the end of December 2022, which would include details of how the £654m currently set aside for participation would be spent.
The Committee also criticised the disbanding of the National Space Council under the Truss government, which it said will “set to undo” recent space policy gains as it makes responsibilities of public bodies involved in space “very unclear”.
“The scrapping of the National Space Council is clearly a step in the wrong direction, and I hope the new government reconsiders this decision,” Clark said.
A government spokesperson said: “Thanks to our continued support, the UK is now home to one of the most innovative and attractive space sectors in the world, with our National Space Strategy delivering huge milestones like Cornwall shortly hosting the first-ever small satellite launch from European soil.”
In October 2022, science minister Nusrat Ghani unveiled a new £15m fund to support UK space businesses for the development of satellite communications technology and Scotland has recently published a Space Sustainability Roadmap – the first of its kind in the world – declaring the nation’s commitment to reducing the environmental impact of its space sector.
Six UK universities have also recently announced they would help to deliver a major upgrade to the cosmic microwave background experiment known as The Simons Observatory, which aims to study the origins of the universe.
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