After Cornwall space launch delays, MPs call Government policy ‘uncertain and disjointed’
The Government’s approach to the UK’s space policy is “uncertain and disjointed”, MPs have said, as Cornwall prepares to host the launch of the UK’s first satellite. In a new report published by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, a cross-party group of MPs expressed concern about the licensing delays that led to the UK’s first-ever satellite launch being postponed.
It comes as Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl is due to launch satellites into orbit this month from Cornwall Spaceport in Newquay, but does not yet have a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to do so.
The MPs also said it was “concerning” that the UK is reliant on the US’s Global Positioning System (GPS) and needs to secure its own Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) capabilities – which is needed for critical national infrastructure and defence purposes.
The report said that while the UK’s £16-billion space and satellite industry is flourishing, the approach to space policy across the Government lacks coherence.
It said that if the UK is unable to participate in the EU’s earth observation programme Copernicus, the Government should publish a ‘Plan B’ by the end of December 2022, which will need to include how £654 million currently set aside for participation would be spent.
Greg Clark, chairman of the committee, said: “The UK space and satellites industry is world class. 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.”
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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”.
Mr Clark said: “The scrapping of the National Space Council is clearly a step in the wrong direction, and I hope the new Government reconsiders this decision.”
The report also expressed concerns that benefits of the taxpayer-funded £400 million stake in OneWeb satellite company still remain unclear.
In the report, the cross-party group of MPs has called for regular scrutiny of the OneWeb investment. In July 2020, the Government took a 33% stake in OneWeb to rescue it from bankruptcy, as part of a consortium with India’s Bharti Global.
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. But the committee said success from the investment is yet to be seen.
The report stated: “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. 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 committee also urged the Government to use its “golden share” – which gives it special voting rights – to seek assurances that OneWeb will manufacture its next-generation satellite constellation in the UK and create economic and job opportunities.
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.”