The history of the UK space sector

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Ministers were given time until November 30 to figure out whether the UK will have a future in the Copernicus Programme. But time is up and the “can is being kicked” further down the road as European officials said this week the deadline has been delayed to an unspecified date. The question of UK access to Copernicus was agreed upon in principle last year in key post-Brexit trade talks but now hangs in the balance due to issues surrounding Northern Ireland and the threat of Article 16 being triggered.

And the resulting crisis is twofold: British scientists are at risk of being locked out of Europe’s leading Earth observation programme, and the European Commission is at risk of losing some £640million (€750million) in funding provided by the UK.

Josef Aschbacher, general of the European Space Agency (ESA), warned this week that Copernicus is a “top priority” for the EU and the potential shortfall in funding needs to be plugged.

He told a European Parliament committee: “Everyone agrees that the next phase needs to continue undamaged.

“In other words, a solution must be found for this €750 million.”

The Copernicus Programme is managed by the European Commission in partnership with the EU’s 27 member states.

It provides a wide host of real-time satellite data on the state of the environment, climate and natural disasters – data that can influence policymaking, management of resources and the response to natural emergencies.

The Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission, for example, has been tracking lava flows from the erupting Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Spanish Canary island of La Palma.

The programme was implemented in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), which is not a branch of the EU and is financially backed by the UK.

Lord Frost gives update on UK’s participation in Horizon Europe

Similar issues have plagued the Horizon Europe programme, which grants scientists across the continent access to cross-border research and development opportunities.

Minister said in June the UK would still be associated to the programme, which has a budget of £81.5billion (€95.5billion) and runs until 2027.

But even this is no longer guaranteed as Westminster and Brussels clash over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

According to Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent, scientists are keen to know whether the Government has any contingency plans in place should all diplomatic efforts fail.

He tweeted: “As predicted, the @CopernicusEU can is being kicked as far down the road as possible, but it will eventually hit a wall.

“What the UK space sector wants to know is: what is Plan B?

“If association is not possible, will the sector get to keep the €750million subscription? @spacegovuk”

Earlier this week the Government said it is ready to provide a “safety net” for Horizon Europe applicants as “association delays continue”.

The guarantee is intended to provide a short-term measure that will cover the first wave of applicants until the EU officially formalises the UK’s association with the programme.

Science, Research and Innovation Minister George Freeman said: “The Horizon programme has been a vital source of fellowships and collaborations for UK researchers over the years, which is why the UK and the EU agreed terms for the UK’s participation in the programme under the TCA.

“The persistent delays from the EU in formalising our association is creating uncertainty in the sector and risks preventing valuable international collaboration on shared global challenges, like climate change.

“We are committed to supporting the UK’s world-class research sector in international collaborations, and this safety net will give researchers and their partners the certainty they need to continue to pursue their project plans and maintain world-class science.”

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