Boris Johnson has agreed to increase funding for the European Space Agency by more than 15 per cent, in an attempt to safeguard Britain’s role in Europe’s most important space programmes. The decision by the UK prime minister late on Tuesday came on the eve of a crucial summit of ESA’s 22 member states in Seville, at which the countries will bid for prime places on projects such as the multibillion-euro earth observation programme, Copernicus. The UK is ESA’s fourth-biggest funder and currently contributes about €350m a year to its programmes. The government confirmed it would increase its annual funding to £374m over five years, a 15 per cent increase in sterling terms but a 23 per cent increase in euros when exchange rates are taken into account. The funds allocated to ESA, which is independent of the EU, are returned to the UK through industrial contracts.
ESA membership allows the country to collaborate with global space agencies on projects like the International Space Station and the ExoMars programme. Mr Woerner said that ‘climate change is a strong driver’ in a bigger-than-expected funding boost for Europe´s Copernicus Earth-observation satellites.
‘Copernicus is now the world´s leading Earth-observation project,’ he said.
‘This shows all the support for an awareness of our planet, and I think it is good because taxpayers are asking (governments) to do something and you can only do something if you know what to do.’
Members also agreed to fund research into black holes, and safety projects to remove space debris and detect asteroids. ESA confirmed that the 2009 cohort of astronauts – including Major Tim Peake – would return to the International Space Station before 2024 Germany will be largest single funder, with 22.9 per cent of the total. One of ESA´s main goals, according to the ministerial meeting, is also to ensure that European countries keep pace in space exploration with competition from the United States, newcomers like China, and growing interest from the private sector.
‘For me, this ministerial (meeting) has one very clear message. This is united space in Europe, all states working together and not competing,’ Woerner said.