Rishi Sunak tipped to lead National Space Council ahead of OneWeb auction

Linda J. Dodson

The Government first announced plans for the National Space Council last summer, trumpeting pledges to work with the US in cementing Britain’s place in the new space race.

Investment in the sector announced last year included £20m for a space port in Cornwall and plans for Virgin Orbit to develop launch capacity in the UK.

But the plans went quiet for months, leading industry members to demand the Government “pull its finger out” and press on with broadening the horizons of Britain’s space plans.

In March, the collapse of OneWeb came as a blow to the industry. The satellite firm, which is building a low-earth-orbit system, has since become the subject of a rescue bid by the British government. 

The Government hopes to use OneWeb as a replacement for Galileo, the EU sat-nav system, as well as to boost Britain’s broadband efforts. OneWeb has so far launched 74 broadband satellites and has plans for hundreds more. If the UK manages to buy the system at a bankruptcy auction on Thursday, the Government hopes to use its network as a form of backup to current GPS networks. 

Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak are understood to have championed the OneWeb deal at a meeting last Wednesday, which has had the support of the Prime Minister’s advisor Dominic Cummings.

However, there remain questions over how well OneWeb’s technology will work for their satellite navigation plans, with Space Agency officials understood to have warned the government last week not to rush into a bid.

Some industry figures voiced support for Mr Sunak’s role on the new committee. A source said the senior minister’s appointment meant the sector now had a voice at the top of Government. The first meeting is expected to convene in July.

“No [department] would want money to come out of their own budget [for space],” a source said. “It demonstrates ambition from the top.”

Earlier this year, a report from trade body UKSpace called for the creation of a dedicated investment fund for space that could be called upon for an “ambitious national space strategy” that had been promised by No 10. The trade body called for a £150m per year fund that could be allocated to industry. 

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