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Space Policy

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on a key development in UK space policy.

As a result of announcements made this week, the United Kingdom will, for the first time ever, be able to launch satellites from its own soil. This is a development that the whole House should welcome and celebrate. The space sector is changing globally, and at a pace never seen since the race to the moon. It is allowing us to answer questions about ourselves and the universe that curious minds have debated for centuries, but it has also seen the development of technologies that are transforming our day-to-day life here on Earth. For example, the technology that was developed to provide clean air on the International Space Station is now being used to control the spread of superbugs in hospitals across the world.

The UK is well placed to be at the forefront of developments in space, and the Government are determined that we will take advantage of the vast opportunities that are available to us as a country. That is why I met the new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, today to discuss UK-US collaboration. As we all know, NASA is the biggest space agency in the world, with budgets in excess of $10 billion a year. We discussed how to extend and deepen the opportunities for our two countries to collaborate, especially in relation to the hugely ambitious vision for exploration set out by President Trump.

It is nearly 50 years since man landed on the moon, and since then we have been no further. Questions remain about whether or not we are alone in the universe. The UK has been at the forefront of robotic exploration to address that question. Indeed, our space industry built the Mars Rover, which will be launched in 2020, and I am very excited that later this week I shall be able to announce a competition related to that mission. We want to continue to be at the forefront of the next human exploration missions, working alongside NASA and the European Space Agency, but space is also a fundamental part of our economic future. The UK space sector is growing. It is worth about £13.7 billion to the economy according to current estimates, and it employs more than 38,000 people across the country.

As is set out in the Government’s industrial strategy, we are working with industry to increase the UK’s share of the global space market from 6.5% to 10% by 2030. The sector has grown at an average of more than 8% every year over the last decade, and three times faster than the average sector over the last five years. Space is a growth sector not only in its own right but as part of our “critical national infrastructure”, underpinning all other key industrial sectors including agritech, automotive, aerospace, maritime and energy. Our space sector is one of the most innovative in the world. It is a world leader in small satellite technology, telecommunications, robotics and Earth observation. For example, we build 25% of the world’s telecommunication satellites and our universities are some of the best in the world for space science.

This week the UK has seized an opportunity to capture a share of the emerging global market for small satellite launch. The Government are working to create the capability and conditions for commercial spaceflight to thrive in the UK. The Government’s industrial strategy includes support for a £50 million programme to kick-start small satellite launch and sub-orbital flight from UK spaceports. Funding will be used to support the first launches from the UK and to deliver a programme of work to realise benefits across the country.

The Government have made announcements this week which underpin our commitment to the sector. A £2.5 million grant has been announced for a vertical spaceport site in Sutherland, on the north coast of Scotland. That the first ever satellite launch from the UK could be from Scottish soil highlights our commitment to the Union. With the support of £29 million of industrial strategy funding, Lockheed Martin and Orbex will be the first companies to set up operations in Sutherland, delivering capable commercial and globally competitive small satellite launch services. Not only does the UK have the technical skills and capability, we have the geography. We are seeing the biggest growth in the sector in small satellites, which are typically launched into polar orbits. This makes the position of the UK a very favourable launch site.

But it is not just about vertical launch capability. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy also announced a £2 million fund to help horizontal spaceports to progress their plans from our £50 million industrial strategy fund for the UK spaceflight programme. Separately, Newquay airport, Cornwall and Virgin Orbit have signed a memorandum of understanding this week, which is an important and positive milestone towards establishing a leading horizontal commercial launch provider at a UK spaceport. We cannot underestimate the scale of the opportunity here, from entering new markets such as space tourism to transforming our intercontinental travel. The Government are providing support not only through funding, but by putting in place the right regulatory framework to enable commercial success.

I am pleased that the Government are not alone in recognising this opportunity. Up and down the country, ambitious local authorities and private investors are coming together to help build our space capability. The rapid growth at the Goonhilly site in Cornwall is further evidence of the excitement in the sector. As technology evolves and reduces the cost of access to space, there is an exciting opportunity for the UK to thrive in the commercial space age. A sector deal for space aims to build on our global leadership in satellites and applications using space data to create a hub in the UK for new commercial space services. Following the sector’s publication of its “Prosperity from Space” proposal in May, we intend to work with it to explore how a sector deal can drive forward the Government’s industrial strategy. We are also developing world class facilities, including the National Space Propulsion Facility in Westcott and the National Satellite Test Facility in Harwell, as well as business incubators in more than 20 locations to support British start-ups hoping to grow into successful space companies.

The whole of the Government recognise the strategic importance of space and the immense economic opportunities it can bring. In a week where the focus of this House has been on the process of withdrawal from the EU, it is important to recognise that space is an area where we are leading new international partnerships. This is nowhere better evidenced than our international partnerships programme delivering tele-education and tele-medicine, which provides the backbone of future economic growth. One programme alone reached 17,000 students in Kenya with a 95% improvement in learning outcomes.

The Government are determined that UK companies are at the forefront of this space revolution, and our economy and the people of this country all benefit. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement.

We welcome this investment in the UK space sector. The global space economy, currently valued at about £160 billion, is estimated to be worth £400 billion by 2030. The UK should be leading the way. But why has it taken the Minister so long to come to the House with an announcement that was briefed to the papers three days ago? I hope he does not see the sector as merely a means to positive headlines for a beleaguered Government.

I have characterised Government policy in this area as “lost in space”. While this announcement is a step forward, it certainly does not mean it’s coming home. The Minister is right to talk about the inspirational nature of space and its down to earth economic benefits. At this morning’s Foundation for Science and Technology roundtable, which I attended, NASA’s chief technologist was able to set out the spin-offs from its programme. I look forward to a UK Minister being able to do the same. However, while the Government’s industrial strategy promised £1 billion in space technology investment over four years, this week’s announcement amounts to much less than that. So I ask the Minister: when will the Government announce the release of further funds for space? Will that be impacted by the £5 billion cost of his Galileo replacement? When will the space sector deal be published?

The thriving industry that we all want to see requires a strong regulatory framework and engagement with industry, yet the Space Industry Act 2018, passed earlier this year, is but a skeleton. When will the secondary legislation be in place to provide the regulatory certainty the industry needs? In addition, drones can affect the launch of spacecraft, but they are not covered under the Act. When will the Government bring forward the promised legislation to deal with them?

As Lord Heseltine made clear in his response to the Government’s industrial strategy, the European Space Agency is a great example of proactive industrial intervention by British Government at European level. This Government could learn a lot. Four fifths of Government investment in space is made through the agency, but the Government’s chaotic Brexit is endangering public and private investment, with Airbus announcing in April that it would relocate work on a €200 million ESA contract from Portsmouth to the continent. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure the UK continues to play a leading role in the ESA post Brexit? How will we maintain space sector supply chains, and the exchange of space scientists and engineers on which they depend?

The proposed Sutherland spaceport will be the northernmost operational spaceport in the world. As a Newcastle MP, I am all for going north. However, spaceports are overwhelmingly sited near the equator where the Earth’s rotational speed is highest, allowing rockets to harness an additional natural boost. Does funding take into account the potential extra costs associated, and what factors were taken into consideration when choosing the location far from the equator, although close to Tory marginals?

As the Minister said, the entire country should benefit from the amazing opportunities posed by space. What steps are the Government taking to ensure the fair regional distribution of space sector supply chains, creating good jobs across the country and ensuring that those jobs should be open to all in a diverse and inclusive space sector?

I thank the Opposition spokesperson for recognising and welcoming the good news this week.

The announcement was made at Farnborough, but my statement demonstrates that there is far more going on in the Government’s space policy than that specific announcement: deeper collaboration with NASA in the US; collaboration with the European Space Agency; investment in our capacity at Harwell; and a space sector deal. So this statement goes far beyond what was announced at Farnborough earlier this week, and it is all good news that I think the House will welcome and, hopefully, celebrate.

On the European Space Agency and our role in Europe, the hon. Lady will know that the ESA is not an EU institution; it is independent of the EU and we are, and will continue to be, a leading member. We see the ESA as key to our strategy for international collaboration—and it is worth recognising that the fact it has “European” in its name does not make it an EU institution, as was suggested.

All the announcements made today are in addition to what we will do with regard to Galileo. We have made it clear in our EU negotiations that our first preference would be to continue to participate in all elements of the Galileo system; that would include the security and sensitive parts of the system, but it should also include UK industry’s being able to participate in it. Were that not forthcoming, we have the option of building our own satellite system. The UK is a proud and independent country, and as a lot of the know-how and skills for the Galileo system is from UK-based companies, I am confident that we could build our own. To that end, the Prime Minister has set up a taskforce to look at the feasibility of doing so, and once that information is available it will be made public to the House and more widely.

On why the first space launch in the UK will be in Scotland and not near the equator, I can reassure Members that equator launches tend to be large satellites to geostationary orbit, but the growth we are talking about here is in small satellites and these tend to be polar. That is why we are ideally located as a country to take advantage of that emerging technology.

This is a huge opportunity for this country, and we are determined that all of the UK should benefit. Not only Scotland, but Cornwall and Snowdonia have the potential to benefit, and the announcements this week will allow market development in all of these areas. The private sector will of course ultimately carry this forward, and there is nothing to stop local authorities working with the private sector to capture the benefits of this huge development for our economy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this extremely welcome statement. As a fellow Surrey MP, he will be only too aware of the importance of the space industry to our county and of the astonishing success of the work in our county for the country. Will he confirm that if the EU remains determined on this astonishing act of self-harm as regards the development of the Galileo project, it will have to bear the long-term costs of the loss of all the British enterprise and expertise in this area, and that we will be free of the immensely bureaucratic allocation of jobs under this European programme, as is reflected in European defence and other space programmes as well? Once we are free to put our expertise within the international alliances where we can get the best possible return on our scientific expertise, so much the better, and in the long term it will be our 27 partners who bear the cost of this astonishing decision.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Were the UK not to continue to participate in the Galileo programme, not only would the programme be delayed but it would cost EU member states a lot more. Surrey Satellite Technology has been responsible for the cryptography and encryption of the Galileo system, and CGI UK, which has a presence in Surrey, has been responsible for building a number of the satellites. So the expertise and skills necessary to deliver the Galileo system reside in the UK, and were the EU to adopt what I consider to be an irrational position and not allow the UK to fully participate, we would not only take the action we need to take to protect critical national infrastructure, but we would also be at liberty to partner with other countries around the world, not only to develop our own global navigation and satellite system but to develop our space sector.[Official Report, 23 July 2018, Vol. 645, c. 6MC.]

As I am a physics teacher, this news is extremely welcome to me. When the Scottish schools go back in approximately three weeks, no doubt the teachers will be telling the pupils all about the spaceport that will be in Scotland.

As a teacher I never imagined we would have such a facility in Scotland, but I never wrote it off as “science fiction” as a certain Tory MSP did last summer. I have had the privilege of visiting Kennedy space centre and the economic and educational opportunities are immense; I hope we will see similar at the A’ Mhòine site.

But space also drives innovation that is critical for other sectors. At present Scotland is home to 18% of the UK’s space sector jobs. It has a thriving satellite industry, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities are training the future space physicists and engineers, and the Scottish physics curriculum has been tailored towards space. So I say to the Minister that this is not about the ambition of a certain US President or commitment to the Union; it is about the fact that the A’ Mhòine peninsula in Sutherland is perfectly placed both in terms of its geographical position for vertical launches, because very few places allow that to take place, and in terms of the educational and manufacturing environment I have described.

There are, however, other spaceports around the UK that could support horizontal launch. What specific steps is the Minister taking with these sites to ensure that the ambition is not isolated, and that many can benefit? What recent conversations has the Minister had with the ESA regarding the exclusion of UK companies from Galileo? They need the answers to that now. Finally, may I ask the Minister for an update on the liability cap? Unless that cap is in place, Clyde-built satellites will still be launched elsewhere.

It is highly unusual to get welcoming remarks from the Scottish National party, and I am tempted to just bank them and sit down.

We are very aware that Prestwick is home to innovative launch companies like Orbital Access and is close to Glasgow’s world-leading small satellite industry, and that Snowdonia is a leading site for remotely piloted vehicles and autonomous testing. We want all of the UK to benefit from this huge technological development. That is why we announced additional grants this week, so that they can bid for them to develop the market in their area and make a success of space.

On Galileo and a possible replacement satellite system, is it not in the EU’s security interests as well as our own national security interests for the EU to continue to work together collaboratively with UK industry, and in particular the space sector?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on why the situation with Galileo is so hugely frustrating. Only about two months ago we worked very closely with the French Government on military strikes in Syria, so the idea that the UK somehow cannot be trusted on sensitive security matters is totally for the birds. Our future participation, if we were to participate, is dependent on our ability to independently ensure the integrity of the system, so that we can rely on it for strategic defence and security uses. That is why the UK has put forward its red lines, but I agree that there is huge benefit in mutual co-operation and the Commission would do well to take the rational position that that is in our mutual security interests.

Leicester is a world leader in space research and engineering, working with NASA and partners across the world. Our new space park will create 3,000 jobs—I hope the Minister will visit us one day. He says he is frustrated with the EU’s reaction on Galileo, but I have heard nothing practical from him about what he will do to protect the Airbus jobs directly related to Galileo in Leicester and to ensure the free movement of EU scientists and researchers, who are so vital to this critical industry of the future.

I am very aware of Leicester’s leading position in space research and science research, and I am looking forward to visiting the university shortly to discuss some of these matters. In terms of what the Government are doing specifically with Galileo, I am in close contact with all the UK companies involved in the programme, and a taskforce is looking at the feasibility of building our own satellite system. That would obviously deliver contracts for UK-based companies. There is also the space sector deal that we are bringing forward shortly, alongside huge investment in research and development, all of which could benefit the UK companies that have huge expertise in this area. So I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are not sitting down and taking this lightly.

A lot of the UK has a hosepipe ban at the moment, but in Chelmsford, Teledyne e2v is inventing a gravity sensor that will go on a small satellite and be able to look at water reserves underneath the earth. This is the future. When will we be able to launch small satellites from the UK?

I expect that to be possible from the early 2020s, given the huge and historic announcement today.

Order. I am not knowledgeable about these important matters, but if my memory serves me, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) is concerned principally with the vertical, rather than the horizontal.

Indeed I am, Mr Speaker. I welcome the announcement that the spaceport will be in my constituency. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I am gratified that so many Members have come into the Chamber to hear me ask this question. [Laughter.] On behalf of my constituents, I thank the UK Government for making this decision. Jobs do not exactly grow on trees in my constituency, and this will be, to coin a phrase, a boost to the local economy. It means that quality jobs will take off.

I have three questions. First, will Orbex and Lockheed Martin be encouraged to start employing local people, and perhaps apprentices, as soon as possible? Secondly, there is great potential for putting satellites into orbit on behalf of other countries that do not have such facilities. The UK could make a lot of money out of that. Will the Minister assure me that Her Majesty’s Government will flex every sinew to get this business? Finally, Viscount Thurso chairs VisitScotland, and there is enormous on-land tourism potential involved in this project. Will Her Majesty’s Government please work closely with VisitScotland to ensure that visitors come to my constituency to see the first rocket taking off?

I am very pleased that Sutherland is getting a big blast from this announcement. Apprentices are already employed by the companies involved in this, and we will do everything we can to work with the local authority to make this a commercial success.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement on this matter. As part of the new space sector deal, will he recognise the importance of research and development, particularly in materials technology? With that in mind, may I extend an invitation to him as Science Minister to come to the National Composites Centre and the Bristol and Bath Science Park to see the excellent work that is being done there in this regard?

I would be delighted to accept that invitation. I agree with my hon. Friend that wider research and development is critical to success in space. That is why this Government have increased R&D spending more than any previous Government have done.

We have heard reports that the space industry has developed proposals for a sector deal, but may I press the Minister to confirm when that sector deal will be agreed and published?

I welcome today’s statement. This really is an exciting time for the UK’s space sector. Will my hon. Friend tell me what else the Government are doing to benefit the space industry, as this will be of particular interest to my constituents who work at the Corsham Airbus site?

There is a huge amount of investment. I have mentioned the space sector deal and other investment in R&D that companies across the country with the expertise to benefit our space sector could do well out of.

More than 50% of UK satellite exports go into the European single market. How will the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill and the Trade Bill, both of which we discussed this week, affect the free-flowing movement of components into and out of the single market?

I have been speaking to lots of companies in the UK that deal in the satellite market. It is a global market, and there are huge global opportunities, including in the EU. The sector will continue to succeed, even when we leave the EU.

What benefit does my hon. Friend believe this sector will bring to the UK economy in the decades ahead? Does he believe that there will be direct benefits for our existing industrial supply chains, such as the steel industry?

The space sector, in addition to being part of our critical national infrastructure, underpins our value in the economy to the tune of £250 billion. This is not just about pushing the frontiers of human knowledge; it is also about creating jobs and helping to power our economy forward. That is why this investment announcement is so important.

I have a feeling that we are about to witness some rocket launches long before anything takes off from a site in Sutherland. Given the contribution that Glasgow makes to the space industry—more satellites are manufactured there than anywhere else in Europe, and pioneering research takes place in the space institute at the University of Glasgow in my constituency—what discussions will the Minister be having with university space institutes to ensure that they can access funding as a result of today’s announcement and that they are fully involved as this project moves forward?

I am planning a trip to Scotland before the end of this month, and I will be discussing exactly those sorts of things with the universities.