UK space policy described as 'disjointed and unclear'

Science and Technology Committee calls for better leadership as satellite launch delayed

Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl was used in a drop test of the Launcher 1 Model. Photo: Halo
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The UK government’s approach to space policy is “disjointed and unclear”, MPs have said, as Britains's first-ever satellite launch was postponed due to licensing delays.

Members of the Science and Technology Committee said the country must improve its approach to leadership on space.

It comes as reports suggest the launch of Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl has been postponed after it has so far failed to secure a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority.

A window for launch, the UK's first, opened on October 29, but the team was aiming for take-off within the first half of November.

The rocket will be carrying eight shoebox-sized satellites, which will perform a variety of tasks for customers including Oman and the US and UK militaries.

“The government must also improve its approach to leadership on space,” says a report from the committee, which was released on Friday.

“Currently, the approach to space policy across Whitehall is disjointed and unclear.

“It is disappointing that the first launch from the UK did not take place in summer 2022 as was originally proposed. At the time of writing, no date for a launch has been set.

“To ensure this launch takes place as soon as possible and that other launches follow soon thereafter, the government must make sure that the CAA, who award required licences, is appropriately resourced to issue them quickly.”

A separate report last month branded the UK a “third-rank space power” and said its lack of space defence progress was “unacceptable”.

The committee report from October called for a minister for space to be appointed within the Cabinet Office to provide clear centralised direction and accountability.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air for the first time during a July 2019 drop test. Photo: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.

The new report raises several concerns.

It points out the UK lost access to the secure Position, Navigation and Timing provided by the European Union’s Galileo system after Brexit, leaving it reliant on the US.

According to the committee, a “significant amount of money and time” was invested across government into investigating and planning a UK PNT system.

But the government has not shared its outcome.

“The government has failed to take appropriate action to ensure that the UK has access to secure PNT should the US’s Global Positioning System (GPS) fail,” the report said.

“We urge the government to publish a National PNT Strategy and set out what ground and space-based components will be used in a UK PNT system.”

The committee also criticised the disbanding of the National Space Council under Liz Truss’s government “without explanation or clarification of new governance arrangements”.

“The government must clarify the new governance arrangements for space and publish detailed implementation plans for the National Space Strategy, which lacks specifics and a clear programme of work,” the report said.

It also pointed out there “have been significant concerns about the government’s investment in OneWeb”, which Boris Johnson’s government took a 33 per cent stake in during summer 2020 to help save it from bankruptcy when it failed to secure funding in March of that year to build up a planned fleet of 650 satellites.

“The government’s purchase of OneWeb was carried out under exceptional circumstances and it is still unclear what benefits the investment will bring to the UK public,” the report said.

“Given the unusual investment, the government should avoid making similar purchases. Further, given the considerable public investment, the government should report to parliament on the state of the government’s investment in OneWeb on a yearly basis.”

The committee says “more must be done to secure the sector’s future success”.

Updated: November 06, 2022, 8:34 PM
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