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UK space policy needs stronger leadership and better co-ordination if the country is to thrive in the global race to develop satellite applications, according to a cross-party group of MPs.
The House of Commons science, innovation and technology committee said on Friday that British efforts to set up western Europe’s first commercial launch facilities for the fast-growing small satellite market had been hampered by poor collaboration between relevant regulators. These included the Civil Aviation Authority, Health & Safety Executive and Environment Agency.
The first satellite launch attempted from the UK — Virgin Orbit’s horizontal take-off from Spaceport Cornwall — failed in January. Although the MPs found no evidence that the regulatory system contributed to the mission’s failure, they noted strong criticism of the regulators by Virgin Orbit and its satellite customers for being slow and bureaucratic.
In their report, the MPs noted some improvement since but found that a lack of co-ordination was continuing “to place unnecessary burdens of complexity and administration on companies, many of them small, in the launch sector”.
Besides Cornwall, the two leading UK launch contenders — SaxaVord and Sutherland spaceports — are in the far north of Scotland. Both offer conventional vertical launches.
The MPs said the whole UK space economy would benefit if it could offer launches as well as satellite development, manufacturing and operations, although international competition was fierce. SaxaVord in Shetland is almost entirely privately funded, while Sutherland has received £14.6mn in public money.
“International experience shows that spaceports usually require ongoing support from government,” the committee said, urging ministers to set out plans for future financial and other support.
Although their investigation focused on launches, the MPs also criticised the government for not doing more to support the UK space industry in general.
“By comparison with other countries, there is a lack of clarity around who drives the UK space programme,” they said, citing the fact that the National Space Council, which was established by ministers last year, had never met.
Greg Clark, Tory MP and committee chair, said the UK had “huge opportunities in the burgeoning space and satellite industry” but cautioned that “clarity of leadership and policies to achieve the government’s ambitions seem to be lacking”.
The MPs highlighted the government’s failure to publish a national strategy on satellite positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), despite repeated calls to do so.
“Many satellite applications require precise PNT and we need to know that the UK will continue to have secure access to these signals,” said Clark. The UK lost its rights to the encrypted service of the EU’s Galileo system after Brexit; access to the US Global Positioning System is not guaranteed but no alternative arrangements are in place.
Alice Bunn, president of trade body UKspace, said she supported the committee’s calls for stronger government leadership and co-ordination, which could unlock the UK’s “world leader” potential in areas such as space manufacturing and satellite servicing.
“The UK space sector is thriving, employing almost 49,000 people,” the government said in response to the report. “The latest data shows it generated an income of £17.5bn in 2021, a £1bn increase on the previous year. The government remains committed to supporting the development of a dynamic UK space flight sector.”