High Noon for ESA Funding

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

The future direction of the space industry in Europe is set to be debated at the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place at the start of December. It will look at the Space Strategy for Europe which we reviewed last week, and crucially will set ESA’s budget for the few next years.

The Council is the governing body of ESA and each of the 22 member states is represented, plus Canada. The Council is chaired by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner, and he gave a press briefing in Paris earlier this week in advance of the meeting.

Sadly, I was unable to go to France for the meeting; but luckily Peter B de Selding from Space News was there and produced an excellent article which highlighted the key points including:

  • ESA is seeking an €11 billion settlement
  • Concern over the Norway’s proposed 75% contribution reduction
  • The ExoMars Programme, which hit the headlines earlier this year when the Schiaparelli lander crashed on its descend to the Mars surface, has a funding gap of €400 million.
  • €800 million is being sought to continue the collaboration with NASA on the International Space Station until 2024

The headline message on money is clearly the requested €11 billion settlement. In 2016 the ESA budget was €5.25 billion, of which almost 30% was income from the European Union (EU), Eumetsat and other programmes. The remaining 70% came from the contributions of each member state and Canada, and it is these future contributions that will be discussed at the Ministerial. This year the biggest contributor was Germany (€872.6 m), followed by France (€844.5 m) and Italy (€512 m) – between them these three accounted for almost 60% of the ESA member state budget.

For us, Pixalytics and the UK, there were a couple of interesting points. Firstly, ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Programmes (EOEP-5) has had a 12.5% funding cut reducing their budget down to €1.4 bn for the period 2017 – 2025. It’s not currently clear what impact this reduction will, or will not, have on existing and planned activities.

Secondly, and for the second week running the blog has had to mention the B word. We’ve previously written about the fact that ESA and the EU are different organisations, and that Brexit does not directly impact our involvement with ESA – a point reinforced by the Director General at the briefing.

Indirectly though, Brexit impacts, if not dominates, the political and financial landscape of the country and as such will have affected the discussions surrounding our ESA contribution commitment. For example:

  • Dropping Value Of Sterling: The pound has dropped by over 13% since the EU Referendum, significantly increasing the cost to the UK of our ESA contribution which was €13.2 m in 2016.
  • Budget Pressures: In addition to the drop in the pound, the UK Space Agency has to compete with every other Government Department for funding. Given the current austerity financial approach, coupled with the additional costs of dealing with Brexit, money is tight.
  • Space Industry Profile: Every industry is currently fighting to get their agenda’s onto Government Minister’s desk to ensure they get then ‘best deal from Brexit’. Space is no different. We may not have the London centre of the financial sector or the emotional impact of the farmers and fisherman, but we are a strong and important part of the economy.

We need Ministers to understand our industry, and to ensure that they support us as much as possible. This means, as we said last week, that we need to give a positive commitment to our ongoing involvement with ESA and a strong financial contribution at the Ministerial in Lucerne on the 1st and 2nd of December.

We await the outcome with interest!

Do you know legal framework for working in space?

Ignorance is no defence in law. Business owners must know all the legal requirements for running a business from financial regulations, through human resources issues to waste disposal. If you work in the vehicle industry, you have to know the legal minimum requirements for having vehicles on the road, insurance and maximum driving hours. Every industry has its own legal framework; do you know requirements for the space industry?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - mechanik/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – mechanik/123RF Stock Photo

Space Law begins within discussions at the United Nations at their Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA), and it’s associated Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Through these bodies a number of international agreements are approved covering how space and space activities should be operated. There have been five treaties agreed:

  1. The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (known as the Outer Space Treaty).
  2. The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Rescue Agreement).
  3. The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (known as the Liability Convention).
  4. The 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Registration Convention.
  5. The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (known as the Moon Agreement).

Once a treated has been agreed, there is a two stage process to adopt the treaty into law in by individual countries. A country needs to first sign the treaty, then they must create their own national law to enact it – known as ratifying the treaty. Once a country has signed a treaty, it becomes binding on them. According to OOSA, of the 193 members of the United Nations at the 1st January 2014:

  • 128 countries had signed the Outer Space Treaty, although 25 still have to ratify it.
  • 118 countries had signed the Rescue Agreement, 24 still to ratify it.
  • 113 countries had signed Liability Convention, 22 still to ratify it.
  • 64 countries had signed the Registration Convention, although 4 still to ratify it.

Only 19 countries had signed the Moon Agreement, and 4 of those still have to ratify it.
Interestingly the UK has only signed the first four treaties, we have not signed the Moon Agreement. Other nations like the UK who have only signed the first four treaties include China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States of America. There are 13 countries that have signed and implemented all five treaties: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Turkey and Uruguay; in addition France and India have signed the treaty, but not yet ratified it.

In previous blogs we’ve highlighted that in the UK the 1986 Outer Space Act is the piece of legislation which contains enacts these treaties. It contains details about who the act applies to, the licensing requirements for operating in outer space, registration of space objects, actions that can be taken to prevent people operating in outer space and offences that can be committed. The offences can be committed both by individuals, and by corporate bodies. Other countries have their own legislation, it’s important that you read, and are aware of, the law in any country you are operating. Remember, ignorance is no defence.

What the UK has launched into space

Yesterday NASA announced its ambition to launch astronauts into space from American soil by 2017, and here the Government is currently assessing eight potential sites – including one in Cornwall – to be a UK spaceport by 2018. This nationalistic view of launch pads got me wondering about what the UK has previously launched in space and crucially, where from?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Under the United Nations Convention on the Registration of Space Objects 1976 a country is deemed to have launched something into space if it does so from its own soil, or it organises someone else to launch it on its behalf. This convention also places obligations on each signatory country, and the UK is one, to make information about all such launches readily available. Details are on the UN website, and in June the UK Space Agency released the UK Registry of Outer Space Objects which makes interesting reading.

According to these sources the UK has launched 67 objects, mostly satellites, into space, beginning in April 1962 with the Ariel 1 satellite. At the time, the United Kingdom was the third country to operate a satellite, after the Soviet Union and the USA. Sadly Ariel 1 had a short four month operational lifespan as it was damaged by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test. Of all the UK’s launches 63% are still operational; a further 22% are in orbit, but non-operational; while the remaining 15% have decayed and returned to earth.

Ariel 1 was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and since then another 17 launches have occurred from American soil, although the most popular UK launch site is French Guiana spaceport with 30 launches. We’ve also launched from Kazakhstan, Russia, Australia, India, Kenya and one even from a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean.

We’ve not launched objects every year; our last fallow year was 2004 and 2013 was the most prolific year with eight launches. Perhaps unsurprisingly a third of the satellites have been launched for telecommunications purposes, with another 18% for military communications. The vast majority of the remainder are for scientific, technological or engineering research purposes. Of the current operational satellites, 56% are in geosynchronous orbits, 30% in low earth orbits and the remaining 14% in medium earth orbits.

This doesn’t give quite the full picture of the UK’s space activities. There are an additional forty five satellites where the UK was not the launching country, but has issued an Outer Space Licence (described in our recent blog) which are listed in the Supplementary Registry of Space Objects on the UK Space Agency website.

The UK has a significant, and growing space sector, and who knows in a few years we may see satellites launched from our shores in Cornwall, Wales or Scotland. Exciting times ahead!

Can we launch a satellite?

We’ve written a number of blogs about satellites being launched, and it got me wondering if anybody can launch one – in case Pixalytics ever wants to go into space. I know we’re a micro business, but we think big! Unsurprisingly, it turns out that you can’t just launch a satellite.

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

In order for any UK company, or individual, to launch any object into space, operate a space object or engage in any activity in outer space, you need to have a licence. The licensing arrangements are detailed in the Outer Space Act 1986, which brought into UK law the provisions of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

The UK Space Agency manages the licencing procedure on behalf of the UK Government, and in order to start the process you need to fill in an application form. This requires:

  • Details of the applicant applying for the licence
  • The nature of the space activity, including technical details about the mission, the satellite, the launch arrangements, ground receiving stations and emergency arrangements.
  • Orbital details including nodal period, inclination, apogee and perigee.
  • Radio frequencies to be used to ensure they won’t cause interference issues.
  • Financial details including mission costs and the applicant’s financial standing to ensure that they can meet their licence obligations.
  • Insurance arrangements – The standard requirement is to have insurance of at least €60 million against third party liabilities arising during both launch and operational phases of the mission. However, if there are any proven third party costs resulting from the launch or operation, the licensees are liable for unlimited damages!
  • End of life disposal arrangements.

In addition, you need to send a non-refundable licence fee of £6,500; although interestingly, educational institutions carrying out activities for the purpose of scientific research or teaching don’t have to pay this fee. This starts to explain why a number of Universities have launched satellites, which we highlighted in an earlier blog.

Once submitted a variety of Government organisations will assess the application including the UK Space Agency, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, OFCOM and any third party technical experts. A licence will only be issued if it’s clear that the activities will not jeopardise public health or the safety of persons or property, will be consistent with the UK’s international obligations and will not impact on our national security.

Once a licence has been granted, the licensee has a number of ongoing obligations; including these two intriguing ones:

  • Preventing the contamination of outer space or adverse changes in the environment of the earth; and
  • Avoid any interference with the activities of others in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.

The guidance suggests that you should submit your application at least six months before launch, although to me given the time, and cost, of building and launching a satellite, six months seems a little late in the day.

Whilst satellite technology may be getting smaller and cheaper with the development of cubesats and nanosats, the requirements around launching them are the same as any other satellite. The UK Government acknowledged this in response to the 2012 consultation on the Outer Space Act in 2012, by noting that the regulations for smaller satellites needed reviewing.

Pixalytics is a few years away from getting into space, our first job is work out what paradigm shifting Earth observation data we’d collect, but it’s useful to have an understanding of the steps we’d have to take. Anyone else thinking of taking one small step?

The UK needs an Earth Observation Day!

Not sure if you know, but today – April 9th – is Earth Observation Day in America!

Any celebration of Earth Observation has our support, but this particular initiative deserves promotion as it’s focussed on inspiring students, and teachers, to engage with remote sensing applications; something that’s at the heart of our company too.
Placard
The event is the brainchild of a non-profit organisation called AmericaView; whose aim is to advance the availability, timely distribution, and widespread use of remote sensing data and technology through education, research and outreach, and sustainable technology transfer to the public and private sectors.

The day itself focuses on using remote sensing imagery and in-situ measurements to explore surface temperature for different types of land cover using Landsat imagery; as it’s freely available and has a historical archive. The AmericaView website has exercises and factsheets to support activities for kindergarten to year 12. In addition, AmericaView scientists, who have expertise in remote sensing and geospatial technology, support teachers in their local area by giving talks, helping teachers design lessons or being available to answer student’s questions.

We think this is a brilliant way to get students learning about remote sensing, and using lots of elements of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculums. We wondered why we don’t have something similar in the UK?

We know there are similar events, for example the Royal Geography Society has been running a GIS (Geographical Information Systems) Day for a number of years; and the National STEM Centre supported World Meteorological Day on the 23 March that looked at weather and climate change. However, there is far more to remote sensing and Earth Observation than weather. We need to promote the potential for the subject to support crop management, helping disaster response, forestry use, support water and marine management, urban planning, flood prevention … the list could go on!

Earth Observation offers huge potential to help our understanding of this planet and its natural resources. With the introduction of cubesats, swarm satellites, and last week’s successful launch of the first satellite of ESA’s Copernicus mission, data available is going to increase exponentially in the near future. It gives students opportunities enhance learning, and apply skills, in a variety of subjects beyond the obvious STEM ones. Remote sensing could be used in the teaching of geography, history and even politics. Couple this with the ambition to double the size of the UK space sector by 2020, Earth Observation could not only supports learning, but offers realistic opportunities for future jobs and careers.

We need to interest, excite and, most importantly, inspire the next generation of scientists in this country, and an educational based Earth Observation Day could play an exciting part of that development. What does the rest of the Earth Observation community think? Should we get our voice heard for an Earth Observation day here too?