UK space firms forced to adjust their models of how the universe works as they lose out on Copernicus contracts

Surprise! The UK has been shut out of an EU-led project


From the department of "chickens coming home to roost" is news that the European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded prime contracts for the next six Copernicus missions, and the UK has missed out.

The Copernicus Sentinels pump Earth observation data into ground-based services and, coupled with input from air and ground stations, provide a continuously updated picture of the overall health of the planet. There are currently three complete two-satellite constellations in orbit along with a single satellite, Sentinel-5P.

The spacecraft currently orbiting provide day and night radar imaging, optical imaging, ocean and land monitoring and atmospheric observations. Additional satellites for more detailed atmospheric composition monitoring and altimetry sea level observations are planned for the coming years.

The next generation of the Copernicus programme features six "High Priority Candidate" (HPC) missions, including carbon dioxide monitoring, polar ice and snow topography and land surface temperature observations. Being the fourth largest contributor to ESA, the UK would have been forgiven for expecting that at least one of the six juicy prime contracts on offer might have come Blighty's way, but it appears not.

Germany contributes twice as much as the UK to ESA's coffers, and both France and Italy are ahead of Great Britain. Those that contribute (including the UK) expect a return on their investment.

According to the German Aerospace Center, ESA has now awarded contracts worth more than €2.5bn for the construction of the HPC satellites. €800m of that will flow directly to space companies in Germany. France, Italy and Spain were also on the receiving the end of ESA's largesse.

It would appear that the consortia involved were reluctant to put UK leads on the bids while the Brexit mayhem was unfolding, and the continuing uncertainty has left its mark.

The UK Space Agency struggled to conceal its disappointment and abstained from the approval vote.

A spokesperson told The Register: "While UK organisations will play important roles in five out of the six Copernicus High Priority Candidate missions, we are disappointed overall with the contract proposals and abstained on the vote to approve them. We are committed to working closely with ESA to ensure our investments deliver industrial returns that align with our national ambitions for space."

However, it will be scraping along at a bare minimum of the geographic return.

The UK enjoys a healthy space sector, with income from technology supporting Earth observation growing at 25 per cent. A large chunk of revenue generated by the UK's space industry comes from EU countries as well as ESA.

The loss of the Copernicus follow-on is, however, hardly a surprise. The mission is a joint EU-ESA affair and was added to a potential Brexit "divorce bill" back in 2018. Of course, in those days Whitehall still reckoned a "no-deal" exit from the EU for the UK was "unlikely", but here we are.

The issue is that while the encryption worries of the EU's other satellite project, Galileo, are not at play with Copernicus, the British government had recognised that since the UK would no longer be in the EU club, it would have no say on how EU projects were run. It also warned that Brit businesses and academics could well find their bids for new Copernicus work blocked.

Far be it from us to suggest that the UK lacks the clout it once had. While ESA is above all the Brexit shenanigans, it is the EU that will fund the building of the satellites. With the UK's status in the post-Brexit world still up in the air, one can well imagine that keeping Blighty in the mix could be risky until the Britain's future status has been decided – be it as a "third country" or something else.

Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a lecturer in International Relations and Space Policy, wasn't surprised how things had turned out and told The Reg: "Copernicus is an EU project that's implemented by ESA, so EU space industrial policy and georeturn takes precedence over ESA's own georeturn principles. Naturally, EU member states and their industries are prioritised for the bigger contracts as it's a major plank of EU space policy and its funding contribution to ESA."

Meanwhile, the UK government had words of consolation for space tech-slingers today. Yeah, so you won't be winning any prime Copernicus contracts, but look – here's "up to" £75k.

As the saying goes, and is doubtless echoing through the corridors of both space agencies and space industries: "As ye sow, so will ye reap". ®

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