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UK loses out on lucrative EU satellite contracts because Brexit

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Sentinel-1, the first in the family of Copernicus satellites, is used to monitor many aspects of our environment (ESA)

The UK has missed out on a potentially lucrative contract to build satellites for the EU’s Copernicus Earth programme.

The programme is one of two big space projects happening in Europe and aims to map all elements of planet Earth – from atmospheric conditions to ocean and land monitoring.

And now the European Space Agency’s industrial policy committee has given contracts for six new satellites to various firms in Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

In total, the contracts are worth more than 2.5 billion euros and the UK space industry was very much hoping to get a piece of the pie. Especially considering the UK is the fourth largest contributor to the European Space Agency.

Airbus Defence and Space Germany will lead the development with a contract value of €300 million.

‘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,’ a spokesperson for the UK Space Agency (UKSA) said.

‘We are committed to working closely with ESA to ensure our investments deliver industrial returns that align with our national ambitions for space.’

The reason for the snub? Part of it is due to Brexit.

Representatives from the ESA’s member states (Stephane Corvaja/ESA)

Although Britain is a member of the ESA and can contribute to the R&D elements of Sentinel (the missions that make up Copernicus) we can’t participate in the manufacturing because that’s funded by EU member states. Which the UK is no longer a part of.

The government is currently trying to negotiate ‘third country’ membership of Copernicus to try and become an industry partner of the missions – but the future is uncertain.

And Copernicus is only one of the EU’s big space projects – the other is called Galileo and is a navigation network of satellites that will rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system.

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover was built at Airbus in Stevenage. (Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

Speaking to the BBC, the ESA’s director of Earth observation, Josef Aschbacher, said there was no bias in awarding the contracts.

‘We can only evaluate what we get in terms of offers,’ he said.

‘If industry shies away from some work packages or activities located in the UK, there is nothing we can do on our side. We have to take what comes to our table.’

The UK space industry is no slouch, it helped build the ESA’s Solar Orbiter space probe which is tasked with getting ridiculously close to the sun in order to better understand our parent star.



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