Written Evidence Submitted by the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO)



Submitted: Professor John Remedios, Executive Director, on behalf of NCEO


Introduction to NCEO


  1. The National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) is an internationally leading, distributed research institute with over 130 scientists from UK institutions, led by Professor John Remedios (University of Leicester). With an annual income of £10 million per year, the NCEO provides the UK with a national, long-term and strategic capability in Earth observation research. Staff are based in 11 universities and 3 research organisations providing a model for sustained activity in space through critical mass and collaborative strength. The NCEO is one of six major research institutes of the Natural Environment Research Council, NERC, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). NERC works with the UK Space Agency through a “dual key” approach to priorities in Earth Observation for environmental science.


  1. NCEO science focusses on the most pressing challenges of environmental science from climate change to wildfire to urban living, devising systems that provide improved quality of life and economic sustainability. Through its world-class research, NCEO is able to analyse vast amounts of data alongside sophisticated models, producing high quality information on the environment of interest to government and business. NCEO scientists publish more than 100 peer-reviewed articles per year and play leading roles in at least 17 international missions. We work with a large number of businesses through satellite-related projects and through local, business-facing initiatives. We support UK Space Agency and government departments in international policy fora such as the Group on Earth Observations (GEO).

Q1: What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships?

  1. Currently the UK’s global position as a space nation is almost entirely down to its international partnerships, the prominence of its space-focussed scientists worldwide, and to its industrial capability in some key areas such as communications, some sensors and small satellites.


  1. In order to be a serious space nation, nations need to be participating in ambitious space projects (usually public-funded through a space agency), to have recognised key capabilities in industry and academia providing space assets (both in space and on ground) and to be leading new (risky) satellites or space ventures.


  1. Although there are increasing commercial successes, it appears that the global growth in space continues to be underpinned by growth in public funding allied to advances in science, technology and engineering capabilities and public procurement support for companies.


  1. The UK sits at a difficult juncture as we emerge from Brexit and the pandemic. The prospects for UK’s global position are excellent if it embarks on strategic national programmes alongside international investments in multi-lateral (multi-nation) activities, creates opportunities for exciting scientific and commercial missions in space through both routes, and works hard to harness the full collective of space talent including the researchers supported by UK’s research councils (UKRI). Equally, if it fails to undertake concrete actions then there is a high risk that the UK will have a diminishing stature as a space nation.


  1. It is well recognised that the UK’s own space stature is limited in three respects. First, it does not own or operate sufficient space assets as a sovereign nation although it does leverage positions in international projects very well. For example, in Earth Observation, the UK receives good credit for its contributions to ESA and Eumetsat, its current primary delivery routes, but has no observing satellites of its own. Secondly, UK direct public funding of its space sector, including the R&D base, is small compared to other countries both as a percentage of GDP but also as an absolute budget (critical for space projects).  Thirdly, its space agency is largely civil service in contrast to the DLR in Germany, CNES in France and NASA in the United States which include strong technical centres.


  1. Therefore the actions for the UK’s global position, given reasonable budgets, are the following for success:
    1. A continued long-term and proactive commitment to be in an international space agency such as ESA;
    2. A national programme which is able to put UK assets in space;
    3. A readiness of government for the UK to benefit from modern space technologies.
    4. A formalised strategy to link UK Space Agency with technical capabilities in the UK’s national research institutes which can supply the ability to the UK to lead and be part of ambitious space ventures.
    5. A route to launching satellites where the launch systems and the satellites are identifiably UK.


  1. We emphasize the importance of the UK being in an international “club” such as ESA in order to be involved in the most ambitious space projects, leveraging its contributions and national space programme to develop capabilities which can be brought to fruition in leading roles. Post-Brexit, the UK intends to retain participation in Copernicus, the most advanced operational Earth Observation system in the world, as was agreed in the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement in December 2020. These are critical markers of the UK as a global space nation in partnerships.


Q2: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base?


  1. The current UK space sector and research and innovation base has many strengths: science superpower, some excellent industrial capability, growing and vibrant academic-industry activities; success in ESA, Eumetsat and Copernicus.


  1. Science Superpower. We know that UK space sciences are highly respected and cited worldwide. In Earth Observation, UK scientists have led long-term multi-satellite missions (the ATSRs/SLSTR) providing independent temperature records and explorer missions charting resulting polar ice change (Cryosat). NCEO scientists play leading roles in more than 17 Earth Observation missions from aerosols to ocean biology, and there are very strong mission lead scientists at the University of Leeds, Reading and the National Oceanography Centre. UK scientists lead the Biomass, Forum (co-lead) and Earthcare missions in ESA’s Future EO programme. TRUTHS is a transformational satellite concept for metrology-standard calibration in space designed and led by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) with strong inputs from UK university colleagues and NCEO. Microcarb is a bilateral mission with France focussing on critical determinations of carbon dioxide concentrations involving some of our best greenhouse gas scientists.


  1. The UK has some excellent industrial capability including manufacture and deployment of successful satellite platforms and expertise in particular space technologies (elements of communication, navigation and Earth Observation). The UK base includes a range of companies from transnational (largely European) businesses to SMEs. Government-funded activities to link scientists and industry have resulted inincreasingly closer alignments in Earth Observation between UK science drive and UK industrial build, so the Biomass mission is UK-led scientifically (University of Sheffield and NCEO) and industrially with Airbus UK as the prime contractor.


  1. The UK has a growing and vibrant academic-business activity including many non-space companies. Long-term NERC funding through NCEO and knowledge exchange at the University of Leicester for environmental research resulted in support for 130 companies over a decade, 55 of whom are in the region. The University of Reading’s Institute for Environmental Analytics has worked with 50 companies over 5 years. The Bayes Centre at the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Earth Observation has worked with at least 25 companies in recent two years. Many of these companies are SMEs and many are working actively with space data.


  1. Success in ESA, Eumetsat and Copernicus. At least from a science and meteorological perspective, working in Earth Observation as part of multi-lateral projects has been very successful for the science base in universities, national research institutes such as STFC RAL NCEO and NPL and agencies such as the Met Office. These international partnerships have enabled us to specify the satellite missions, calibrate the instruments, design the algorithms and build the data into products, information and models (including operational streams). We benefit hugely from our scientific leadership in terms of cost-effectiveness, access to large amounts of high quality data sets and world-class publications. The long-term operational missions are enabling UK science, collaborating with other international expert teams, to respond to the challenges of monitoring climate and net zero.


  1. Weaknesses inherent in the UK space sector are clear although there is evidence of work to overcome some of these: lack of a long-term national programme; gaps in technology capabilities; slowness in bringing space into government; lack of a digital strategy for space data; too little public funding for innovative UK technologies.


  1. Lack of long-term national programme for the UK. In Earth Observation, the UK only rarely supports national missions (e.g. NovaSAR if this can be counted as national). This is in contrast to countries such as Canada, Sweden, France, Germany and Japan.


  1. We have gaps in some technology capabilities where we have not adopted a sector overview and enabled opportunities in areas where we should have key skills e.g. some remote sensing technologies.


  1. Slowness in bringing space into government. Many other countries have recognised the value of space in their science and technology capabilities and as assets with strategic economic and security priorities. The UK has been slow to realise this as a government although the creation of the UK Space Agency has enabled a more effective voice in government.


  1. Lack of space data strategy and funded delivery plan. Despite work on a digital economy, the UK really suffers from a lack of long-term strategy and formal data plan for its space data needs that links science, government business/operations and downstream commercial developments. Either the UK government does not appreciate the tremendous power of fast computing, clever algorithms and accessible data for all in this area or it does not understand that satellites by themselves do not produce data or information; this is a crucial on-ground activity that hugely increases the output value for a given investment. The EU, Eumetsat, ESA and NASA all invest large sums in ground processing and data access.


  1. In the UK, we devote too little money to raising the Technology Readiness Levels of instruments and have very few facilities to facilitate this activity. Where we have done so, we have enjoyed success in bringing UK technologies to the international market albeit limited then by budgets to enable UK technologies to head into space. Academic-industrial programmes such as the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation have been very successful but funding is too small and too short-term to really enable long-term progress.


Q3: What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries?


  1. This is a complicated question. The UK strategies in space have been very different to those of equivalent countries. There has been much less emphasis on sovereign space assets, particularly in Earth Observation, whereas for many emerging space nations their aspiration is often to launch their own Earth Observation satellite. Over time, it is fair to say that the challenges of the Innovation and Growth Strategy have led to significant advances: the creation of the UK Space Agency, the funding of the Satellite Applications Catapult, the ESA site at Harwell, increased collaborative engagement of the UK space sector, the increased significance and budget for UK space activities.


  1. Where UK space strategy has probably been weaker is in realising full support for UK players, moving with speed to support Earth services, government systems and failing to fully align academic and industrial interests at the satellite mission level.


  1. Some lessons that we need to fully realise:
    1. Investment in first missions pays off long-term as successful missions often find repeat business.
    2. Developing technologies need strong R&D support with good chances of (space) flight opportunities.
    3. Data expertise and fast data infrastructures (including access) are essential for mission delivery. That is how NASA and EUMETSAT make such a success of their missions.
    4. Overall, we need to do end to end design and put resource behind our strategy. For example, in developing launcher capability we also need to develop satellites that these launchers can put into space. One without the other may not make strategic or economic sense.


Q4: What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy?

  1. Our views on the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy follow-on from answers to previous questions. We would strongly recommend:


  1. The focus of a UK space strategy should be on building an integrated approach to 21st century space deployments boosting UK government, science and industrial capabilities through infrastructure in space and on the ground which is delivered through a technically knowledgeable sector and agency.


  1. The UK should aim to put more UK-owned assets into space e.g. satellites for Earth observation and services, space exploration and space ventures particularly where assets demonstrate new selling points and sustained capabilities. It seems to us that space advancement is about disruptive but long-term projects. Scisats and academic-industry technology hubs/projects should be given greater prominence allowing innovative University-led technology to also reach space.


  1. The UK should aim to implement a national space programme which builds synergistically with its crucial subscriptions into multi-lateral agencies such as ESA and Eumetsat.


  1. The UK should implement a digital strategy for space data, seeking efficient and shared data infrastructures, processing next to data and fast access for UK entities. Combining public and commercial data sets (assuming appropriate licences) would be a significant asset to UK plc. Significant advances such as data cubes and digital twins fall under this category.


  1. The UK Space Agency should upskill its technical capabilities by allocating resource to appoint staff with appropriate space skills and long-term career aspirations in space. It should enter formal agreements with national research institutes for greater technical support with appropriate resource.


  1. The UK should invest time and effort in technical studies of joint military and civil use of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems to ensure satellites are well specified and deliver value to both communities.


Q5: What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications?


  1. We answer this question only with respect to “meteorological observations” and “Earth Observations and climate change”.  From our perspective as long-term national research capability, these two types are artificially divided and we utilise all these types of observations. For example, many meteorological observations are high quality, long-term data sets and form the basis of climate data sets alongside other types of Earth observing, remote sensing systems. Many meteorological and Copernicus instruments became operational by building on technology and datasets demonstrated initially in research (“one-off”) missions.


  1. Hence we note that there is likely a significant contribution to GDP from both meteorological (£211 billion) and Earth Observation services (£100 billion); Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2020. The applications of EO are growing in commercial terms and can really power government evidence, monitoring and resilience systems,


  1. There are five main steps in the Earth Observation and meteorology area that we can see would lead to much more resilient infrastructure access for the UK:
    1. Be committed long-term in our international partnerships for satellite infrastructure.
    2. Assess the gaps for the UK in the highly valuable multi-lateral systems to which the UK subscribes.
    3. Setup a specific programme to launch priority UK satellite systems with long-term commitments to funding and commercial guarantees to support.
    4. Increase technical capability, and its sustainability, by encouraging industry-academia joint delivery of technologies for the priority missions, including digital technologies.
    5. Design and deliver data pipelines which give the UK resilience over its satellite EO data and allow government and scientists to easily access required datasets. Many UK requirements, e.g. for science, climate and environment, are for freely accessible data with traceability and standards applied.


(June 2021)