UK industry is the big loser as Europe seeks to expand its Copernicus Earth observation programme.
Contracts have been approved to lead the development of six new satellite systems, including one to track carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.
British companies had hoped to play a significant role in the enlargement but that idea has been knocked back.
A European Space Agency industrial policy committee has given all the prime contracts to continental firms.
Worse still for British interests, the value of the sub-contracting involvement is just two-thirds of what might have been expected.
To show its disappoint with the way the contracting process has turned out, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) abstained in Wednesday’s committee vote.
“While UK organisations will play important roles in five out of the six Copernicus High Priority Candidate missions, we are disappointed overall with the contract proposals and abstained on the vote to approve them,” a UKSA spokesperson said.
“We are committed to working closely with Esa to ensure our investments deliver industrial returns that align with our national ambitions for space.”
Copernicus is the European Union’s “other big space project” after the Galileo sat-nav system. It flies a constellation of “Sentinel” sensors in orbit to monitor the Earth – everything from mapping the damage wrought by earthquakes to tracing air pollution.
It’s the most ambitious programme of its type in the world: multiple types of instruments guaranteed to be operational for decades.
As with Galileo spacecraft, the procurement of Copernicus Sentinels is handled on behalf of the EU by the European Space Agency.
The Esa industrial contracts endorsed on Wednesday will kick off the key design phases for the next six Sentinel systems:
- CO2M: A constellation of three spacecraft to map the emissions of carbon dioxide. The industrial consortium will be led by OHB-System of Germany.
- CHIME: A hyperspectral imager that will return detailed information on the health of crops and other plants. To be led by Thales Alenia Space (TAS), France.
- LSTM: A thermal infrared sensor to measure land-surface temperature. Again, useful in agriculture and to predict drought. Airbus, Spain.
- CRISTAL: An altimeter to measure the height of Earth’s ice fields – a critical tool for monitoring climate change. Airbus, Germany.
- ROSE-L: An L-band radar which can also observe ice but many other targets as well, including forests and soils. Thales Alenia Space, Italy.
- CIMR: A microwave radiometer to measure sea-surface temperature and salinity, and sea-ice concentration. Thales Alenia Space, Italy.
The complicating factor here for the UK is Brexit. While Britain is a member of Esa and is committed to remain so, it has left the EU – and the procurement rules for Copernicus are clear: while non-EU member-state companies can participate in the Sentinels’ R&D elements (an Esa responsibility), they cannot participate in the later, recurring manufacturing stages (which are funded by EU member states).
London is currently trying to negotiate “third country” membership of Copernicus at EU level in its trade talks with Brussels. If it succeeds, the above complication goes away. But British industry suspects the present uncertainty has already left its mark.
The belief is continental consortia shied away from including too much UK participation in their Sentinel bids for fear they might have to drop British partners at a later date in what would be disruptive reorganisations.
Speaking to the BBC, the Esa director of Earth observation Josef Aschbacher was adamant there was no bias in his agency against the UK: “We can only evaluate what we get in terms of offers,” he said. “If industry shies away from some work packages or activities located in the UK, there is nothing we can do on our side. We have to take what comes to our table.”
In November last year, the UK Space Agency committed €170m (£150m) to the new Sentinels’ R&D budget, which totalled €1.8bn from all Esa member states. Ordinarily, this 9.4% commitment would be reflected in the value of the contracts coming back to Britain. But on Wednesday’s allocation, it’s barley half that.
Dr Aschbacher said €366m of his budget had yet to be allocated for support activities such as ground control and technology development and he hoped UK businesses would bid for and win some of this work.
What is the Copernicus programme?
- EU project that is being procured with European Space Agency help
- Pulls together all Earth-monitoring data, from space and the ground
- Will use a range of spacecraft – some already up there, others yet to fly
- Expected to be invaluable to scientists studying climate change
- Important for disaster response – earthquakes, floods, fires etc
- Data will also help design and enforce EU policies: fishing quotas etc
British industry officials told the BBC that the disappointment could have been avoided had the country gone in harder with its November commitment.
At one point, there was talk of the UK putting down €280m. This almost certainly would have guaranteed at least one leadership contract. Indeed, the BBC understands Airbus UK even prepared two prime bids – for CIMR and LSTM. But when the €170m figure was revealed, the LSTM bid was moved to Airbus in Spain. And now the CIMR bid has been lost to TAS in Italy.
Nick Shave, the new chair of trade body UKSpace, said British firms would definitely be bidding for the unallocated funds, and he struck a positive note by emphasising the work home companies would be contributing.
“It’s disappointing that we don’t have a leadership role, but there is key instrument work in there from Airbus UK and TAS UK; Teledyne and the National Physical Laboratory will also be doing noble work. So, we’re pleased about that; it’s all bad news.”
Mr Shave also emphasised the strength of UK firms in using Sentinel data.
The existing EU/Esa Sentinel satellites
- Sentinel-1: Radar satellite that can see the Earth’s surface in all weathers
- Sentinel-2: Multi-wavelength detectors to study principally land changes
- Sentinel-3: Similar to S2, but tuned to observe ocean properties and behaviour
- Sentinel-4: High-orbiting sensor to measure atmospheric gases
- Sentinel-5: Low-orbiting atmospheric sensor to help monitor air quality
- Sentinel-6: Future version of the long-running Jason sea-surface height series
The worry is that the latest contractual arrangements might weaken the business case for the UK seeking third country status in the EU Copernicus programme. If Brussels asks for a large subscription, some may question the value of UK membership given that a big proportion of this money will be being spent on spacecraft engineers in EU countries.
However, such a view would be self-defeating, believes Quarry One Eleven founder Alistair Maclenan, who is the outgoing chair of the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies.
“We are talking about the biggest Earth observation project in our history. When you look at what it’s achieved – to not be involved would be idiotic,” he told BBC News.
“This is not something the UK can replicate on its own. The amount of money, time and expertise means something like Copernicus can only be done across countries and to not be at the heart of it would be a huge mistake.”
and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos