Page last updated at 07:27 GMT, Sunday, 26 October 2008

UK ambitions in space 'at risk'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Sentinel-3 satelite (Esa)
The Kopernikus programme is ordering new satellites called Sentinels

One of Europe's flagship space projects looks as though it is going to proceed with the UK continuing to be a bit-part player, scientists and engineers fear.

The Kopernikus programme is dedicated to acquiring and collating satellite data on the health of the planet.

Although Britain says it recognises the project's high value, especially for monitoring the climate, it has so far declined to take a lead in the venture.

Industry and academia have called for a swift change in government policy.

Failure to adopt a more positive approach before a critical meeting of Europe's space ministers next month will put expertise and jobs in the UK at risk, they warn.

"We had a chance three years ago to play a major role in this programme and I'm afraid it looks as though we are about to let slip another opportunity," said Dr Mike Healy from EADS Astrium, the largest space company in the UK.

Global view

Kopernikus is a joint endeavour of the European Space Agency (Esa) and the European Commission.

It is building a coordinated system for Earth observation and monitoring.

We have a few weeks left before the ministerial to try to put this right
Colin Challen MP

It will pull together all the information obtained by environmental satellites, air and ground stations to provide a comprehensive picture of the planet.

Its quest is to generate continuous, cross-calibrated, long-term data-sets that can be used to inform European policies to deal with global change. New satellites are being ordered to fill in data gaps.

But Kopernikus will cost in excess of two billion euros and the UK, despite its claim to lead on climate issues, has been reluctant to invest in the project.

It passed up the opportunity to drive the programme when it was initiated in 2005, and figures in industry and academia have told the BBC that the noises coming from within government indicate the UK will also give the second phase only limited financial support.

It has been suggested there may be as little as 40m euros on the table from Britain when the member states of Esa meet in The Hague at the end of November to declare their positions.

Leadership question

Kopernikus supporters were hoping there might be funds in excess of 100m euros.

"One wonders if Europe will get anything from the UK, frankly," a depressed Colin Challen MP told BBC News.

"At the present time, we can claim scientific leadership on climate matters, in the Hadley Centre (a climate modelling facility) and at a great many other institutions in the UK that are doing a lot of extremely valuable work.

Envisat image of Buncefield fire (Esa)
Joint venture of European Union and European Space Agency
Pulls together all Earth-monitoring data, from space and ground
Will use existing and newly commissioned spacecraft
Crucial to the understanding of how our climate is changing
Important for disaster monitoring - earthquakes, floods, fires, etc
An enforcement tool for EU policies: fishing quotas, etc
Old name: Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES)

"But this kind of investment is about keeping us at the forefront," said the chair of the all party parliamentary group on climate change.

"Maybe that doesn't matter; maybe it's OK for the rest of Europe to do this job and for us to just freeload. But then we won't be able to claim we are the world leaders on tackling climate change."

For the UK's Earth observation scientists, the government's position is baffling.

Professor Shaun Quegan from Sheffield University said that Britain was losing influence in Kopernikus.

Satellite instruments that would obtain key climate and pollution data, and which the UK would excel at building, risked being sidelined, he warned.

"Dealing with climate change isn't just about running [computer] models; it's about actually getting the data. It's the data which keeps the models honest, if you like," Professor Quegan told BBC News.

"If we're saying climate is a major scientific issue and the UK is a serious player in this, but then we're choosing not to take part in the observational system that is needed - well, basically, we are talking the talk and not walking the walk."

Sea ice extent (NSIDC)
"Real data" is needed from satellites to keep the computer models "honest"

For industry, the unwillingness of the UK to commit to Kopernikus has a very direct and negative impact.

Because Esa programmes operate on a juste retour (fair return) basis, those countries which contribute most to programmes can be guaranteed to get the biggest contracts to build satellites and support systems.

Sentinel-1 (Esa)
Sentinel-1 will be built in Italy

In Britain's case, the flip-side applies: its low subscription means its companies get less work. Astrium UK watched the contract for the first dedicated Kopernikus satellite go to an Italian company even though the British outfit had done the early research work.

"The last ministerial was disastrous for us," said Dr Healy.

"OK, we've been pretty successful recently - we've won quite a bit of commercial work - but institutional funding is very important to us; it accounts for 30% of what we do. To have two disastrous ministerials in a row would erode our long-term competitive position."

Last efforts

Kopernikus is often held up as the classic illustration of what is wrong with British space policy.

Whereas Germany, France and Italy have national space agencies that speak with single voices backed up by single budgets, the UK's approach is to devolve space policy decisions to a club of "users".

These users are the government departments and research councils that have interests in space science or space-borne services. The arrangement is supposed to ensure that limited space funding chases "need" and not "vanity".

But critics say the inability of this club to adopt coherent positions on complex programmes such as Kopernikus means that UK delegations often find themselves marginalised when they go into international negotiations.

Colin Challen intends to put down an Early Day Motion in the Commons on Tuesday to bring attention to the Kopernikus issue. "We have a few weeks left before the ministerial to try to put this right," he explained.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the lead user on Kopernikus in the UK. A spokesperson said: "The UK government is committed to supporting this valuable environmental monitoring programme and no final funding decisions have yet been taken."

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