Brexit has brought all sorts of changes for the UK, affecting many economic aspects of trade and public relations. While some industries were seriously affected by the separation, the others remained relatively intact. The space industry, in particular, seems to suffer the least. On the other hand, many UK-based companies, Orbex Space included, voice their concerns for the British space program future. So, which developments can we anticipate?
Despite a common misconception, the European Space Agency is neither Europe nor EU-exclusive. Canada is also an active member, and the UK’s membership in the ESA remains intact, Brexit or no Brexit. In fact, the UK continues to invest around 300 million pounds a year in various ESA projects.
On the other hand, non-EU countries have limited access to some of the ESA’s projects, even though they can actively participate in any other missions not related to the military and defense spheres. So, while plenty of opportunities remain, some doors are shut for good.
One of the doors that got shut is the Galileo project. For the end satellite navigation users in the United Kingdom space agency, nothing changes. However, the state and the government will no longer have access to any Galileo or EGNOS military and defense functionality. Neither will the UK have any say in further Galileo development.
The UK’s participation in the Copernicus Earth observation program is questionable, too. Technically, the UK can participate in this 2021-2027 mission, but only as the third country. But before that happens, the EU Space Regulation will have to finalize a deal first.
Next, Brexit consequences go beyond large-scale space programs like Galileo and Copernicus; separate UK companies participating in those projects are affected as well. Within the Galileo framework, CGI UK lost a $290 million worth contract to a Spanish rocket company GMV.
In 2018, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), a leading Galileo participant, had to move some of its operations to Europe. Together with German OHB Group, SSTL managed to provide 22 payloads worth £126 million. The company still has to finalize 12 more payloads under a valid contract, but its further participation in Galileo is questionable.
Besides, SSTL was not the only company that sought relocation to Europe. In 2018 alone, 200 major aerospace companies in the UK, Rolls-Royce included, have filed to remain under EU regulations.
Right now, the worst part seems to be over because the Brexit uncertainty period is drawing to its logical end. Certain deals and regulations have already been struck, ensuring mutually beneficial collaboration between the UK and EU space organizations. On the other hand, some questions still stand. As many companies used to rely on manufacturing lines based in European Union, the UK space industry will have to finalize export and import regulations.
While no clearly defined jurisdictions are in place, many UK-based companies are searching for exit routes in case import fees are too high. Danish-originating Orbex Space, with its plans for launching from Sutherland Space Hub, has previously announced its plan B to move its Prime UK rocket launches to the Azores. That would be unfortunate since the UKSA already invested millions of pounds into the company and Sutherland launchpad for Orbex Prime rocket. On the other hand, Orbex Space manufacturing facilities are located in Denmark, and high export fee would seriously affect Prime launch cost — something that Orbex Space is obviously not happy about.
So, even though Brexit had an impact on the UK operations, the British rockets industry is moving on. However, to ensure further sustainable growth and development, new deals will have to be struck. Right now, it is very important to create a reasonable legislation framework that would be equally beneficial for the UK and EU aerospace companies. Today’s space industry is getting ever more international, emphasizing collaboration with experienced providers worldwide. Eventually, creating an independent UK space industry could be possible. But, independence does not mean isolation, which is why a collaboration framework will have to be discussed first.
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