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A new year in which to stretch the UK space pound

Jonathan Amos | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

Any timeline of key UK space events in 2011 will have to include the start of the new financial year in April.

This is the point at which the new UK Space Agency formally comes into being, and with its own budget.

Planck artist's impression

The year will start from my point of view with an update from Europe's Planck space telescope

No longer does the body for co-ordinating space activity in Britain have to go cap in hand to government departments and research councils, looking for cash to run a programme.

Responsibilities previously scattered across Whitehall and Polaris House in Swindon (home to the research councils) are being passed to the UKSA along with their cash.

The two major exceptions are the Met Office and the money it pays to belong to Eumetsat, the pan-European organisation charged with operating the continent’s weather satellites; and oversight of the MoD’s Skynet satellite telecommunications system which is run by a private company. These stay outside the UKSA.

The recent allocation of science and research funding [500k PDF] for 2011/12 to 2014/15 saw the UKSA being given £769,685,000 (926,028,000 euros) for the period.  This is all programmatic money; administration is separate.  Also not included here is the capital allocation for the period of about £76m which covers buildings and hardware costs.

The programmatic budget equates to a little shy of £200m a year, although the money is slightly front-loaded because the agency has some large, immediate commitments, most notably funding the UK’s part of GMES, which is Europe’s big environmental monitoring project.

There is also money to offset exchange rate movements that have made membership of the European Space Agency (Esa) more expensive.

Set against the current baseline, the UKSA’s funding is projected to increase by about 109%. Inflation is quite strong at the moment so by 2014/15, the allocation will probably work out as a small cut in real terms.

This is the "flat cash" settlement the coalition promised to science; and compared with other areas of science, the UKSA has done better than average, as I predicted back in October.

This almost certainly reflects the recognition of the economic importance of space and what it can contribute to future growth. Industrially, this is a sector, remember, which is expanding and taking on people.

It is worth noting also that the UKSA now sits inside the science funding “ring fence”, which ought to mean its cash cannot be raided if there is a problem elsewhere in government.

A lot of people are still reflecting on the fact that science escaped the large cuts meted out to other areas of government-supported activity; there remains a sense of relief in the air. But you can be sure that as the months and years go by, the government will again be asked to demonstrate its commitment, especially if other nations continue to pump large sums of money into their science base.

Both France and Germany dwarf the UK in terms of space spending; their budgets are five times that of the UK, and they are increasing their budgets.

What is more, not only do France and Germany pay big sums into the European Space Agency (Esa), they have a large amount of money reserved for national programmes.

Once the UK has met its Esa subscription, there’s not a huge amount left in the tin.  UK space scientists and engineers, though, are masters at stretching a pound to make it do remarkable things.  

And so we gallop ahead. What am I looking forward to most? Well, I’ve got quite enough on my plate already this week, thank you. Tomorrow (Tuesday), we get the first big science results from Esa’s Planck telescope.

I’ve had a sneak preview and it’s impressive stuff.  British research is to the fore, too.

In fact, we’ll be focusing quite a bit on Esa this week at the BBC.

If you are in a part of the globe that can pick up the BBC World News Channel, you will be able to see our link-up with the International Space Station on Thursday at about 1415 GMT.

Tim Willcox will be talking live with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. He will be showing viewers his new home and taking some questions.

I took part in an event with Paolo back in the summer at a science festival in Turin, and he is an excellent communicator. If you haven’t caught his Tweets, you can follow them here. He’s also taking a stream of pictures of the Earth.

The hope is we will also have the UK’s Esa astronaut-in-waiting Tim Peake in our studios; certainly the director of human spaceflight at Esa, Simonetta Di Pippo, will be there.

It will be a chance to find out where Europe thinks it is going with the ISS. Esa member-states are committed to the extension to 2020, but they’re some way off approving a budget to make it happen.  This matter is quite pressing now and something they really have to sort out in the next few months. 

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