Parliamentary committee maintains criticism of UK space comms strategy

Even as satellite broadband industry rockets, report from Commons Science and Technology Committee criticises continued failures in key technical areas

In November 2022, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee slammed the government’s approach to space policy as being uncertain, disjointed and lacking coherence, and while welcoming some response to its recommendations, it has expressed continued disappointment in key areas, in particular a lack of further scrutiny and detail on the UK’s stake in satellite operator OneWeb and a failure to secure UK position, navigation and timing (PNT) capabilities.

The report was the result of an inquiry by a cross-party group of MPs into the industry that was originally launched in April 2021. In setting out its frames of reference, the committee observed that the use of space and satellites had become essential for day-to-day life, with satellites supporting a range of public services, such as navigation, weather forecasting and telecommunications.

Yet the findings of the committee noted that even though the UK space and satellite industry was currently flourishing, the general approach to space policy across government was “disjointed and unclear”, lacked coherence and was ultimately in danger of not realising the full potential of a space and satellite industry valued at £16bn.

Furthermore, the committee specifically called for improvements to UK satellite launch licensing, the need to develop secure PNT capabilities, a Plan B for Copernicus should the UK not be able to participate in the EU’s earth observation programme, and further scrutiny and detail on the UK’s stake in OneWeb – which the UK government and Bharti Airtel brought out of bankruptcy in June 2020.

After being given a new lease of commercial life, OneWeb has run up a number of successes, and only weeks ago announced the latest in a number of deals with connectivity providers around the globe, revealing it was targeting the launch of 36 satellites by the end of March 2023 to complete its first-generation low earth orbit constellation and initiate global coverage.

Commenting on the government’s response, the Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, welcomed that a review by Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, had concluded with it taking up one of the committee’s recommendations on space launch licensing.

Vallance’s Pro-innovation regulation of technologies review: Digital technologies, made a recommendation in line with the committee’s report that the government should implement a variable liability approach to granting space launch licences by June 2023. The Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed in the Spring Budget that he accepts these recommendations in full.

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Yet the committee also highlighted a lack of action in the other two areas. “Our report noted the reliance on foreign systems for PNT, a service that is crucial in keeping critical national infrastructure running,” said Clark. “We are disappointed to see that, yet again, the government will not commit to publishing a national PNT strategy, something that stakeholders in many sectors have been requesting for some time.

“It is also disappointing that the government rejected annual parliamentary scrutiny of the UK’s stake in OneWeb,” he continued. “There is little detail on how the UK’s so-called golden share has brought tangible benefits to the country, given that the government has said it cannot compel OneWeb to manufacture its Gen2 constellation in the UK, as was previously promised. The need for transparency and scrutiny of this investment will not fade and we urge the government to be forthcoming on this matter.”

The committee also expressed disappointment that a satellite launch from the UK has not yet been achieved, especially as it had been assured on several occasions that the first horizontal launch would take place in summer 2022.

The response highlighted the failure on 9 January 2023 of the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne vehicle designed to fulfil the Start Me Up satellite mission from the Spaceport in Cornwall.

Following its 22:16 UTC take-off, the rocket ignited its engines, going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. After successful separation and ignition of the second stage, at some point the system experienced what has been described as an “anomaly”, ending the mission.

Start Me Up was carrying satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations and a collaborative US-UK mission. The committee recently held a follow-up session on the failed launch.

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