Copernicus: EU space programme explained

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The UK has been handed a plan to build a new space lab by using £300million of funds the UK was supposed to contribute towards an EU scheme it has been blocked from joining. Britain was set to take part in the £80billion Horizon Europe programme, the Copernicus Earth observation project, and the nuclear programme Euratom. But the bloc told the UK it cannot participate in these schemes until the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute is resolved, despite its involvement being a feature of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. 

But instead of waiting for the impasse to come to an end, which has already lasted over 18 months, Britain has been urged to use 40 percent of the huge £750 funding pot destined for Copernicus to instead set up a new £300million space laboratory. 

Gabriel Elefteriu, Director of Strategy and Space Policy at the Policy Exchange think tank, has written a report urging the UK to ditch Copernicus altogether in order to kickstart a space revolution. 

And a crucial part of that revolution involves setting up a brand new space lab. He told “We need to have a central, in-house capability within the UK Space Agency to build our own science-based missions for a start.

“At the moment we cannot do that as the UK only builds instruments or sytems that go on other people’s missions. We might build an antenna or a sensor to go on a probe to some planet, but we never own the entire project. 

“A National Space Lab (NSL) would allow the UK to build end-to-end UK-flagged space missions. It is ludicrous that the country doesn’t do that. We have a very strong space research and science base in this country. We have people with the necessary skills and knowledge across various places around the UK at universities, at the space cluster in Harwell, at the space applications Catapult UK – we have all sorts of assets but they are spread out.

“The idea with the space lab is to bring these all under a single authority and basically replicate – at a smaller scale of course – the model that NASA had from the beginning. The agency has these huge space centres, and the French for example have the Toulouse Space Centre, which is their main hub. This is how you concentrate and develop space tech skills and how you build delivery capability. If it is all spread out like it currently is in Britain it will never get there.” 

Under Mr Elefteriu’s plans, the space lab would be controlled by the UK Space Agency and would see a Research and Development centre, covering all space science and technology areas, become fully integrated with UK’s long-term national strategic space interests.

Budget-wise, it would see £150million of the funds administered by the UKSA, while the other half of the funds would be deployed directly via the European Space Agency. 

The report reads: “An NSL is also the only way in which Britain can ever get to build its own end-to-end, fully-owned space exploration missions – something that even countries like Israel or the UAE have been able to deploy for years – and take British space science and tech research to the next level.

“One component of NSL could be a British Astronaut Centre providing a full astronaut qualification programme and growing UK competence in space life sciences. This centre would take advantage of existing UK capabilities in this area such as centrifuges or world-leading space medicine expertise.”

But Westminster would need to agree to ditch the Copernicus programme for this idea to come to fruition. And the Government could perhaps be convinced given that, as Mr Elefteriu, the value of what Britain would get out of the project has significantly decreased. 

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He told “If the political situation between the EU and the UK, which is holding up Copernicus and Horizon, is resolved tomorrow, we would still be paying the same fee to re-join. Our share of the Copernicus budget remains the same but the value, so what we would get for that money has decreased well beyond anything that is justifiable.

“All the big important contracts, big both in terms of financial value but also in terms of the technologies involved have gone. With a big space programme like this, obviously, you are interested in making money, so bringing work home to support the industry.

“But you are also interested in working on cutting-edge tech. You want to work on high-value projects from a technological standpoint but all that has gone because it has been delayed.

“If we go back into the programme now, we are handing over £750million over to the EU and not getting that much back – we’d be effectively subsidising the EU’s space policy.”

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