Written Evidence Submitted by Professor David Southwood CBE


Executive Summary

It is argued that UK is a serious space nation and there is every reason to believe that it can remain so as the developed world becomes more and more dependent on space systems in a connected world.  Most of the questions outlined in the Call are answered implicitly if not explicitly.  However, a lot of attention is given to implications of UK’s departure from EU. Leaving the EU requires action on the part of Government to replace what the EU provided in the pastIt is no bad thing as it forces national needs to be actively articulated in place of past passive acceptance.  Policy needs to be developed on where national capability is most effectively achieved through international cooperation, where through European organisations and even where close cooperation with EU needs be sought.  Finally, there are areas where national sovereignty, economic or commercial interest prioritise a national approach. With a shared sense of national priorities in space, UK space activities can both prosper and play an enabling role in future UK prosperity. 


I write as an individual with a long career in space.  Some details of my background experience and current activities are given at the end of the submission.

Prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships;

I shall say little about Space Science.  Space science is important.  It always serves to push technology and it is inspirational. The UK community’s position is not in doubt, making it easy to comment. The UK has been for a long time a major space science player.  After the national programme ceased ~1980, UK groups have led in many missions with ESA providing an effective platform for a global role although Japan has also been an important partnerUK scientists have also played important parts in US missions, for example the flagship James Webb Space Telescope to be launched later this year.  ESA has usually been a catalyst for such roles.

Outside space science, in the recent past, diverse UK space actions have caught world attention and made clear the ambitions for the UK in space. Recent examples are the Government participation in the OneWeb consortium, the announcement of a global collaboration Federated Quantum System, led by the UK ArQit company for a satellite-based future quantum encryption network, or the fact that the UK was amongst the first group of nations to sign up for the next phase of lunar exploration with the USA. On a different scale, the active small sat community and the prospect of space launches from UK sites soon also sends a positive message. Prospects for the community and industry thus are good. However, the Government needs to support space activity through funding and investment to meet national needs and to nurture a growing UK space community through the right regulatory environment.

Strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base;

The community has expertise across multiple aspects of space activities [space science, exploration, Earth observation (commercial, operational (e.g. meteorology, climate change) science, telecoms, downstream applications, navigation, cyber, space safety (space weather, debris)]. There is little experience in traditional launchers but there is work on small launchers (appropriate for UK launch sites) and future, potentially game-changing, launchers (reaction engines).

A particular strength in UK has been developments in Harwell. The locating of the Satellite Catapult and the development of the ECSAT ESA space applications centre at Harwell have been important in invigorating the space sector in UK. The investment in test facilities has allowed smaller industrial groupings to think of developing systems.  It has spawned new entrants to the sector in the UK. It should play an important role in diversifying the sector at all scales and in stimulating competition, from SME’s through to large system primes.

What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of the space strategies of other countries;

France, with an economy similar in scale to UK, has long been an example of a country that has always had well defined national interests in space and matching government policies.  It has long had a long-term nationally funded programme to balance and enhance its capacity for international cooperation and is a prime example of a highly space-aware country. However, it can give lessons in the risks of not being nimble in a changing technological background. Currently, France and to a lesser degree its partners in the Ariane rocket programme look very financially restricted (from other investment) by the costs of long-term development of Ariane 6. Although the launcher will guarantee independent European access to space, a key element of French space policy, the new system may not match the commercial success of earlier Ariane models as was originally expected. This is because the nature of the launcher market is changing.  Technology advances are driving many space systems to use smaller spacecraft or constellations. 

Strategic issues raised by our leaving the European Union.

It is not necessarily a disaster that we have left the EU as far as space capability is concerned.  We contributed a lot to what the EU now have but our industry also profited from the contracts. However, it is foolish to assume nothing has changed.  EU has many ambitions for increased space activities; some do not matter to us, some could be even beneficial to us, but in some areas we may well need to act to protect our national interest.  

In the last two decades, especially with the development Galileo and Copernicus programmes, the EU has become a major player in use of space for provision of economic benefits and for security in its widest senseIt has also declared future ambitious goals, for instance in secure communications between public entities across the Union, in space safety, in space weather and the commercialisation of space activities. Small expenditure in some of these areas has been undertaken already in its R&D programme Horizon 2020 and will continue under the current Horizon Europe programme. 

Hitherto, the UK space community has been part of the development of the EU’s space programme but the policy driving developments has been determined and led from Brussels. Now UK is out, it needs to develop its own policies in the areas Brussels looked after hitherto

UK space policy can be separated under 3 headings: (1) as regards science, BEIS had a clear lead; (2) as regards defence, MOD has led; (3) as it regards space applications directed at improving the average citizen’s daily life, and this is where the lead has been with the EU. The third category is of increasing importance and currently there is a risk of a vacuum in the UK.  Now, we need to think for ourselves.  UK’s needs for space capability in our new context outside the EU need thorough assessment. 

A framework for what future public funding and policy actions are needed achieve the goal that UK remains a nation well able to take advantage of space. Space systems use spans many Government departments, some of whom remain ignorant as to the extent to which space capability and space systems underpin their own policy objectives. The collective interest needs be captured across all of Government and space capabilities should be prioritised according to aggregate need, rather than relying on any single department identifying space as a number 1 priority. Such a cross-government approach should not just cover civil use but also encourage routinely taking advantage of dual use applications.

Our new situation means all space sectors need be examined (arguably, even those where there is no overt UK capability – e.g. (heavy lift launchers)).  Attention needs to be paid to how best to proceed in each sector and its importance for the overall national interest. Some will require government effort and public investment.  Others require creating an appropriate regulatory environment for a healthy commercially based system. Then there are the areas which can most efficiently develop through participation in international organisations like the European Space Agency (ESA) or by separate bilateral arrangements. Finally, there are areas where there is no national interest.

In the past, UK has passively (though EU budget contributions) contributed large investment in EU space infrastructure like the Galileo and Copernicus systems.  Particular attention is needed after our leaving EU over where independent national actions are needed to replace those programmes and where national interest is best served by seeking collaboration with EU.  In both cases, interests cross ministerial boundaries and priorities need setting at high level. 


The EU Galileo system and its allied EGNOS (European Global Navigation Overlay System) is the most straightforward to analyse as, once out of the EU, we cannot have the fullest access to the most sensitive positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) data provided. UK thus needs to decide how to provide for what is no longer available. Building a similar global system with or without partners, would be expensive but there could be indirect ways of enhancing accuracy and authenticity of the signals from the various current systems which could provide what has been lost. 


The EU Copernicus programme raises more complicated questions. It is regarded as the best space environmental monitoring system world-wide. Those responsible for understanding the evolution of climate change and its potential impacts need to pay attention to its data, which is largely open to all. Our scientists want to be involved in the system development and exploitation and so there are good reasons to negotiate continued participation.  However, such a step should also ensure fullest participation of our industry in developing, maintaining and exploiting the output of the system.  If the latter cannot be agreed, then it could be ultimately closer to the national interest to direct national effort into activities with parallel goals.  Almost certainly, such opportunities exist with countries like the USA or even with other European countries where ESA could play a catalytic role in fostering collaboration.

Copernicus and other European Organisations

If UK does not fully participate in Copernicus, evidently it would be important to ensure that ESA work directed towards future Copernicus systems is appropriately accounted for.  Moreover, it is not only with respect to ESA repayment work for Copernicus that needs to be monitored carefully. Organisations that UK belongs to like EUMETSAT (European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites) or also ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-term Weather Forecasting) undertake repayment work for Copernicus.  

New declared space interests of the EU

As the EU has become an increasingly important space power, so the Commission has realised that monitoring threats to the resilience of space systems and working to ensure a globally safe operating environment is of increasing importance. Often, issues are global, for example, planetary defence (e.g. mitigation of possible collision between Earth and small celestial body). Often our national interest may align with EU e.g. measures to ensure security of space systems.  However, just as allocation of operating frequencies for space activities have often been contentious, so key national interests may come into play in space safetySpace Traffic Management is an area where, because UK is investing public money in a communications constellation (OneWeb), the Government needs its own capacity to make judgements.  In the near future it would be useful to establish what ESA’s role should be in the space safety area.  Should it develop work in the area as another strand of the repayment work it already does for EU or should it act independently to safeguard the interests of all its Member States? Space Weather (impact of solar disturbances on terrestrial systems from air travel to power distribution) has global aspects and at present the USA is a global leader in obtaining and analysing dataUK is making large investments both nationally and within ESA (in coordination with US plans)Space weather information is a classic example of dual use with both civil and defence purposes. In UK the responsibility for space weather operational delivery to users lies with the Meteorological Office and is coordinated closely with the US. Responsibility at European level for operational space weather is currently unclear but will need resolution in the next few years.

Concluding remarks

I have argued that much about UK’s space capability is healthy and that UK’s leaving the European Union marks a watershed moment for UK space activities.  The Government no longer is compelled to subscribe to the EU space programme, but it does need to step up to the challenge of replacing access to space applications that we once had by default.  It is an opportunity to take stock of what national needs are as space becomes a more and more pervasive element of modern life.  Money will need to be spent and regulatory environment developed.  Despite some sensitive work needing to be reserved for national capability, new partnerships are possible in many areas and current partnerships deserve reassessment in the new context. ESA remains a strong potential mechanism for cooperation, not just to work with other European nations but Canada closely cooperates with ESA and cooperation with the USA is undertaken in science, exploration and areas like Earth Observation. However, what is needed first is an overall national policy covering the priorities for and the possible means of development of space systems.

Professor David Southwood CBE
Imperial College London

Background experience:

I have been involved in space activities throughout my career.  2/3 of my career was as a space scientist (planetary science) in academia in UK (Imperial College) and in USA and 1/3 at high level in the European Space Agency (ESA).  Working in ESA Earth Observation as head of strategy, I drew up, negotiated, and presented to Ministers in 1999 the architecture of what has become the current European Earth Observation Space Programme.  Responsibilities and roles were shared between European Commission (Copernicus), ESA (science spacecraft and technical development in all areas) and EUMETSAT (meteorological spacecraft).  In 2001, I became Director of Science (Science and Robotic Exploration from 2008) responsible for building various space astronomical observatories as well as missions to Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Mars, Comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, and landing a probe on Saturn’s moon Titan.  In 2011, I returned to Imperial as a Senior Research Investigator, a position I currently hold. I was president of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2012-2013.  I served on the UK Space Agency Steering Board 2011-2019 (as chair 2016-2019). I was a member of several European Commission advisory committees until EU exit. I am currently a member of the NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) Advisory Council.  I am also an advisor to the UK ESA Council delegation (2013-present).    



(June 2021)