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UK space funding: Steady thrust ahead?

Jonathan Amos | 12:30 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

When George Osborne stood up to give his Spending Review statement on Wednesday I was walking around a factory cleanroom in Germany inspecting three satellites that will make the most precise measurements of the Earth's multi-layered magnetic field.

The Swarm spacecraft will be so sensitive they will be able to trace even the magnetism induced by the movement of ocean currents.

And although German industry is leading this remarkable project, the UK has been responsible for a major part of the satellites' development and construction.

It is just the sort of activity you would expect from two countries needing to build capability and competitiveness in a global market - academia and industry tied together in excellence to produce world-leading research and product.

A Swarm spacecraft under construction at EADS Astrium, Friedrichshafen

The Swarm spacecraft contain German and British engineering excellence

Mr Osborne clearly agrees. It's one of the reasons he is giving UK science a "flat-cash settlement" over the next four years when those involved were expecting something worse - much worse.

There will of course now be something of a mad scramble from the different areas of UK research as they seek to claim a good slice of the flat cash, because it is certain there will be winners and losers in this money just as there were across the Spending Review in general.

The big difference this time, compared with when a chancellor last set a financial trajectory in the research sector, is the presence of a spanking new body - the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

By April next year, it will be fully up and running and all the space monies that were previously controlled by Britain's Research Councils and government departments will have been transferred across into the agency's single budget line.

So how will it fare in the scramble? Well, science minister David Willetts wasn't being drawn into specifics on Wednesday but in the brief response he gave to a question I had put to him from Germany, there is every reason to believe that space will come out better than average. He said:

"I haven't got details of spending [on space] but what I can say is that the Treasury completely buys the argument that science clearly contributes to long-term economic growth, and in space we have a sector which is growing as fast as the Chinese economy; and it is exactly the kind of area where there are things we can do to maintain its excellent performance; and on the public-sector side we shall fight to do so."

The comparison with the Chinese economy is no boast. Figures I've seen and which will be made public shortly will demonstrate the UK space industry flew through the recession and now has an astonishing annual average growth rate of 10%.

It is now turning over something like £7.5bn a year, and it's taking on more and more people - up 15% year on year.

It's figures like these which explain why the coalition has waved through with little question the publicly-funded space projects announced by the previous government. I'm talking here about projects such as TechDemoSat which I wrote about on Monday.

The idea of a market-barrier-breaking spacecraft to trial innovative UK technologies has been mooted for some time. It is now going ahead and there is even talk of it becoming a continuing programme.

Two specific issues come to mind and are worth watching. There are plenty of others, but these happen to be in my head right now.

The UK Space Agency has a notional combined budget of about £250m, but two areas of major civil space expenditure still sit outside this pot.

One is the grant line for researchers at universities to exploit space data - still controlled by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The other is the UK's contribution to the European meteorological space agency, Eumetsat. This remains the responsibility of the Met Office and MoD.

In the case of grants, these are often the easiest items to squeeze and in the case of the STFC with so many other areas of its expenditure fixed and unmoveable, there will be concern in the research community that these grants could be one of the "losers" as the cash is divvied up.

In the case of the Eumetsat side of things, I go back to something I saw in that German cleanroom. This was a pair of colossal satellites called Metop-B and Metop-C.

Their sibling, Metop-A, is currently circling the poles gathering data that informs our daily weather forecasts. The B and C spacecraft are the follow-ons; they will be launched in the coming years to provide continuity of service through this decade.

But Europe will need soon to order a next generation - to design and start building the satellites that come after Metop-C. This is likely to be a 2.5bn-euro programme in which UK scientists and engineers would want to take a prominent role in the R&D phase.

The reason for that is obvious on one level, but on another it is not quite so obvious. In Europe, the way these kinds of projects are organised means those that do the R&D on the satellites get the contracts to build the operational system. It's a very simple multiplier: you put something in at the beginning and you get a lot more back later.

The UK has not played this game well recently, unlike the Germans and the French.

Britain built the basic structure of the Metop series and installed their propulsion systems. To get similar work on the next generation, it will have to commit money to Eumetsat's R&D partner (the European Space Agency) during this coming spending round, probably in 2012.

Where will that money come from? Whose budget line will it come off? This is just one example of a big-ticket item that will bear down on those who get to play with the numbers announced on Wednesday.

Richard Peckham is the chair of UK Space, the industry umbrella body for the British space sector. He is certainly hopeful that public expenditure on space will come out "better than average":

"The argument in favour of space is that it is so cross-cutting - it is important science, it's important to defence and security and it's vital for economic growth. I'm reasonably optimistic that given a flat budget, we'll do alright. I notice also that the government is talking about finding efficiencies and for the money that's saved being re-invested. So some of the public 'spend' on space may actually end up being slightly more than they're saying."
Metop-B and Metop-C being prepared for launch

Metop-B and Metop-C will maintain continuity - but will the UK be involved in their successors?

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