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Space Policy

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement today on a key development in United Kingdom space policy. As a result of announcements made this week the UK will for the first time ever be able to launch satellites from its own soil. This is a development 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 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 this Government are determined that we take advantage of the vast opportunity available to us as a country. That is why today I met the new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, to discuss UK-US collaboration. We all know that NASA is the biggest space agency in the world, with budgets in excess of $10 billion per year. We discussed how to extend and deepen the opportunities for our two countries to collaborate, especially around the hugely ambitious vision for exploration set out by President Trump.

It has been nearly 50 years since man landed on the moon, and since then we have been no further. Questions remain as to whether or not we are alone in the universe. The UK has been at the forefront of robotic exploration to address this question. Indeed, our space industry built the Mars rover, which will launch in 2020, and I am very excited that later this week I will be able to announce a competition related to this 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 around £13 billion to the economy at current estimates and employs more than 38,000 people right across the country. As set out in the Government’s industrial strategy, we are working with industry to grow the UK’s share of the global space market from 6.5% to 10% by 2030. The sector has grown at an average of over 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 also as part of our critical national infrastructure, underpinning all other key industrial sectors such as 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 suborbital flight from UK spaceports. Funding will be used to support the first launches from the UK and deliver a programme of work to realise benefits across the country.

We 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 but we also 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.

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-funded 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 not only providing support through funding but 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 the sector 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 government recognises 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 in our international partnerships programme delivering tele-education and telemedicine, which provides the backbone of future economic growth. One programme alone reached 17,000 students in Kenya, with a 95% improvement in learning outcomes. This Government are determined that UK companies are at the forefront of this space revolution and that our economy and the people of this country all benefit. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in another place. We welcome this investment in the UK space sector. Having said that, the ink is scarcely dry on the Space Industry Act, a skeleton Act focusing, quite rightly, on important insurance concerns and on making sure that this fledgeling sector is not stifled at birth by planning issues, complaints about noise or nuisance or environmental concerns. If it is to thrive, the industry we all want to see will require a strong regulatory framework, so when will the secondary legislation that the Minister referred to be brought forward for consideration by this House?

The global space economy market is currently valued at around £160 billion and it is estimated that it will grow to nearly £400 billion by 2030. Most of the expertise and activity is based in the USA, so setting up in direct competition is certainly a bold step. We have heard today that the UK industry is worth £13.7 billion and employs 38,000 people which are big numbers. The target set out in the Statement is 10% of the global market, or £40 billion, which is a big jump. We need a bit more detail about how the Government intend that to happen. The Minister might be aware that the Government’s industrial strategy promised £1 billion of investment in space technology over four years. This announcement is significantly less than that. When do the Government expect to announce the release of further funds for developing spaceflight capabilities? Since there has been some mention of it in the Statement, when will the Government publish a sector deal for space which might also give us some of the detail of how the money is to be created and spent?

Finally, the proposed vertical spaceport site in Sutherland will be the northernmost operational spaceport in the world. As a Scot, I am all for the message this sends to the UK and to Scotland—and indeed for the support it implies for the union. As I am sure the Minister will acknowledge, however, spaceports are overwhelmingly sited near the equator. This is not just for the weather; it is where the earth’s rotational speed is highest, allowing rockets to harness an additional natural boost. There is a point about polar orbits which I recognise, but this is an outlier decision. Can the Minister confirm that the funding announced today takes into account the potential extra costs associated with this location? Can he also set out the countervailing arguments that were used in choosing this location? Linked to this, what steps are the Government taking to ensure a fair regional distribution of space sector supply chains and the associated impact this will have on good jobs in the sector across the whole of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, these announcements are good news for Sutherland and Cornwall—if we have in future a space industry to use them. I am a member of the EU Sub-Committee on the Internal Market. We recently visited Harwell, which is mentioned in this Statement. The scientists working in the industry there are very concerned, rather than very excited, because they are already being squeezed out of aspects of the Galileo programme. They reported that companies and highly skilled individuals in the industry are already moving abroad and companies are planning to move abroad in the future.

There is something very Alice in Wonderland about this Statement, in that it avoids mentioning the Galileo programme. Also, of course, it avoids mentioning Horizon. There is also something rather Alice in Wonderland about the naive enthusiasm for President Trump’s promises for trade, because they have already proved a rather uncertain basis on which to predict the future. My first question to the Minister is: have the Government now received assurances from the EU that we will be able to continue in Galileo? By that—this is a key point—I mean: will we be able to be awarded contracts under the Galileo programme as well as to undertake research as part of the scheme? The scheme involves paying in and getting out as part of the research programme. As I understand it, the problem that has been raised in relation to Galileo would have an impact on our right to receive commercial contracts.

Secondly, the amounts of money in the Statement are welcome—of course they are—but this is a very expensive industry. As the noble Lord has just said, the Government have promised relatively small amounts of money here in comparison with the overall figures previously mentioned in terms of investment in the industry. So I should like to press the Minister for more detail about planned future government investment in the industry. How does that £2 billion pan out over the next few years?

Lastly, I live in Wales, and I should have liked to see Wales included in this. North Wales offered a potential site for a spaceport. That was supported by the Welsh Government and could have been a very useful partnership. Once again, the people of Wales are in a position where we have put forward a plan for large-scale investment but it has been rejected. First, it was electrification across south Wales, then it was the tidal lagoon in Swansea and now it is the spaceport. A pattern is developing here, and it is a very depressing one if you come from Wales. Why was Wales not awarded this? Was it considered as a serious contender and, if not, why was that information not given out earlier so that expectations in Wales were not raised?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his generally positive response to the Statement. I hope I can answer most of his points, but I hope he will understand if I offer to write to him in greater detail on further points. I have to say that this is not exactly my specialist subject or one with which I am totally familiar, but I will do the best I can.

Starting with the Space Industry Act 2018, work is ongoing on the secondary legislation that comes out of that. We hope to be in a position to consult in 2019 and get it in force by 2020, so work is taking place.

On the sector deal, obviously there was a little about that in the Statement itself. I hope we can continue to work with the industry on developing it. As the noble Lord knows, sector deals should be a matter for the industry and others and the Government to work together on to see how they can co-operate in doing things. As I made clear in the Statement, we have already had the Prosperity from Space proposal from the sector; we want to build on that and on the areas where we have leadership. As I mentioned in the Statement, we are already pretty good at small satellites. I recently gave the example of a small satellite factory that I visited belonging to an American company, which decided that the place where it wanted to build its small satellites was Glasgow because that area had the right people, the right expertise and all the other things. It is a testament to Scotland and Glasgow that that is why the company wanted to go there. A sector deal should look at our strengths and what we can do.

The noble Lord also asked about the site of the spaceport. In answering him, I hope I can address the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. There was interest from a number of areas for vertical sites, just as there was for horizontal sites, and obviously a number of areas will be disappointed because we picked the site in Sutherland. As the noble Lord implied, equatorial sites further south are used for the very heavy lift that is needed for geostationary sites, but the growth in this area seems to be in small satellites. Small satellites at lower orbits typically require polar orbits and I understand that the further north you go the better it is, but scientists will no doubt be able to explain that in terms that the noble Lord will find easier to understand than my brief explanation. As he knows, Sutherland is further north than Wales, and that is one reason why we took that view.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, addressed the issue of Galileo. That has come up in this House on several occasions, and I can only repeat how disappointed we are by the attitude of the European Commission, whose policy on this can only be described—I think by a Member of this House—as “shooting itself in the foot”. It is losing UK money and expertise in an area where we are doing very well indeed; attempting to exclude us from that is a mistake. We have made it clear that we still wish to be part of it. We wish to continue to engage on that basis but unfortunately the Commission’s proposals do not appear to meet our objectives. We have set out our red lines for participation in Galileo; they include full industrial access to all other parts of the programme.

If we are excluded, it is open to the United Kingdom to develop options for a domestic alternative to Galileo. We have a new satellite launch programme to bring launch capabilities into the UK and we have announced the first grants from this programme. The noble Baroness, in what I have to say was not the most positive of responses to the Statement, also queried whether sufficient money was being put into this area. I make it clear to the noble Baroness that there is some £50 million for the spaceflight programme, another £100 million or so invested in the satellite testing facility at Harwell, and £300 million a year through the European Space Agency. There is also the sector deal, which we will be announcing in due course; I hope there will be more positive news in that.

As I said, I shall write if there are other points I need to pick up on in response to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, but I hope I have answered most of their questions.

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-chairman of Eutelsat, which owns satellites rather than launchers. As the Minister says, there is a great deal of capability in the UK in satellite manufacture. There will also be huge growth in small satellites. However, it is not at all clear that those satellites will be launched on small launchers. The economics are very unlikely to allow it; they are more likely to be launched on large launchers, which will be much cheaper. Increasingly, small satellites can be positioned in the sky through electrical propulsion so it is not clear to me why it makes sense for the UK to invest in small launchers. Will the Government publish their business case for the spaceport?

I shall look into what it is possible for me to release to the noble Lord in response to his question on publishing the business case. I certainly feel that we would want to be as open as possible about why we chose the site in the north of Scotland and what we consider its advantages to be. I will write to him in due course.

In the Statement, Britain’s universities were praised for being at the top of the tree, but there is a significant problem here. I focused at Question Time on the paucity of qualified science teachers in primary schools. This runs right through our system; if we are to be competitive in the space industry, we need better physics, better mathematics in particular and, of course, as much engineering as possible. There are quite insignificant numbers of A-level physics teachers; far more are needed. As the Institute of Physics and the Royal Academy of Engineers point out, far more of these posts remain empty. What can the Government do to ensure we have more teaching, particularly of physics and mathematics, at A-level?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention; I am sure the Government as a whole are grateful for the intervention he made earlier at Question Time. I was in the Chamber to hear it; if I remember correctly, I now know, as I did not at the time—and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is with me on this—that nitrogen is the commonest gas. But the noble Lord, Lord Winston, makes a more important point. We have a very strong university sector. We have enormous strengths in science in the university sector and we want to make sure we maintain them. It would not be right for me, in responding to this Statement, to go through all the Government wish to do to improve the teaching of science in our schools. However, I shall certainly make the comments of the noble Lord available to my colleagues in the Department for Education.

My Lords, I hope I will not surprise the Minister too much if I say that I share his disappointment at the attitude being taken by the Commission towards the Galileo project. It is, to put it mildly, short-sighted, but it does lead me to a rather broader question: what military intelligence and security implications arise out of the Statement he has just repeated?

My Lords, there is a great deal in this Statement to be welcomed, but there are two practical issues that I wonder whether the Minister can say something about. First, who owns the land on which the proposed site in Sutherland is to be developed? Is the land already in the ownership of the consortium which is proposing to develop the site, or will it have to be acquired from another owner, either voluntarily or compulsorily?

The other question relates to the environmental consequences of what is being proposed. Is it accepted that there will have to be a full environmental impact study? I mention this because it is all very well to think of remote areas as having nothing much in them, but in fact, they often contain very sensitive birdlife, flowers and so on, and great care needs to be taken to see that the construction carried out is compatible with the nature of the environment.

I am afraid that I cannot help the noble and learned Lord as to the ownership of that land. On the second issue, he is right to point to the environmental impact of such a Statement. I am not fully au fait with the planning processes in Scotland—which local authority deals with which issue, and what the involvement of the Scottish Government is—but obviously, this will have to go through a full planning process and in that process, an environmental impact statement will have to be produced to ensure that we know what the effect is going to be. Coming back to England, we only have to look at what happened recently on Saddleworth Moor to know that when one is dealing with highly inflammable objects in remote areas, such things obviously have to be taken into account.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement, which is forward-looking and much more proactive than is sometimes the case in this field. Will this site be used entirely for civilian activity or will there be room for Ministry of Defence activity as well, if its northerly latitude does not prevent the launching of MoD-type satellites, which normally go up from nearer the equator?

I think that would have to be a question for the Ministry of Defence and the operators of the site, in terms of whatever satellites the MoD wanted to put up, the needs of those satellites and whether it wanted to do it from a civilian base or from elsewhere. That would be more properly addressed once it knows what satellites it hopes to launch.