European Space Agency offers UK alternative to EU’s Copernicus project


Britain is looking to play a bigger role in the European Space Agency if Brussels blocks its continued participation in the EU’s Copernicus earth observation programme.

George Freeman, UK science minister, said being shut out of the next stage of Copernicus was not incompatible with expanded membership of ESA, an international organisation separate from the EU.

“In fact, quite the opposite. It means that our membership of ESA is all the more important,” he told the FT Investing in Space conference in London. “But we’ll need to come to the table . . . with much clearer sense of what we’re wanting to put in and what we can get out.”

In an interview Josef Aschbacher, director-general of ESA, welcomed Freeman’s commitment and proposed the agency as “the vehicle to realise [the UK’s] national ambitions, because we have already the right priorities and framework in place”.

UK involvement in Copernicus, an EU programme that became operational in 2014 and uses a constellation of satellites to monitor the environment, seems likely to become another casualty of the increasingly bitter dispute between Brussels and London over the post-Brexit trading regime for Northern Ireland.

The UK looks set to be shut out of the Horizon science programme while its future participation in the Euratom nuclear research partnership remains in doubt.

The UK government originally set aside £750mn for future contributions to Copernicus but hopes are fading that Brussels will allow it to take part. Without the British funding, the programme faces a budget shortfall that will curb planned Copernicus missions after 2024.

ESA’s Josef Aschbacher © FT Live

Aschbacher agreed with Freeman that UK participation in Copernicus would be the best solution for all parties. But if agreement was not reached, the budget gap was a “problem Brussels should solve,” he said. ESA was ready to work with Brussels to resolve this. Copernicus is funded by the EU and largely implemented by ESA.

Freeman said the UK was working on plans to reallocate the £750mn set aside for Copernicus. Outside Copernicus the British space industry could exploit many other opportunities in earth observation (EO), which is crucial for monitoring climate change and other activities.

“You only have to look at the increasing appetite for EO data,” Freeman said. “There are a number of applications . . . so there’s no shortage of customers. We’ve got the funding . . . and there are a lot of countries that want to work with us.”

Freeman declined to give an exact deadline for Brussels to decide on whether to allow the UK to remain part of Copernicus before making other arrangements but “if the phone hasn’t rung, then during the autumn we will start to roll out our plans,” he said.

Aschbacher mentioned several alternative programmes being planned by ESA that would fit with the UK’s space strategy. One is the creation of a “digital twin Earth”, a supercomputer model that will use Earth observation data to monitor and forecast natural and human activity on the planet.

Another is a satellite called Truths that will provide measurements of radiation reaching Earth from the sun and then being reflected back out into space.

Aschbacher said he would ask ESA member states for a substantial funding increase in the next ESA ministerial council meeting, due in November. The agency’s budget for the three years to 2022 is €12.4bn and he will propose to spend 25 to 30 per cent more over the following three years.