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'Brexit' leaves lingering questions about involvement in European Space Agency

Posted June 24, 2016 9:02 p.m. EDT

British Astronaut Tim Peake flies the ESA flag during a recent stay aboard the International Space Station (Credit: ESA/NASA)

As the world woke up to news of the United Kingdom’s (UK) vote to leave the European Union, questions arose in the scientific community about the future of the UK’s involvement in the European Space Agency (ESA). Scientists are also concerned about how the UK’s exit will impact research.  A March poll of 2,000 European researchers by the scientific journal Nature found only 12% supported the UK’s exit from the EU, while 78% said an exit would harm science in the UK.

The short answer is that the UK isn’t going to be shown the ESA door, but concerns and questions remain. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who campaigned for Britain to exit the European Union, has also publicly expressed support for continued ESA involvement. 

The UK Space Agency is a sizable part of the ESA. It is the third largest source of funding behind Germany and France, which isn’t expected to change. The ESA further strengthened its ties with the UK with the 2015 opening of the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in Harwell, Oxfordshire, UK.

While the European Union’s space policy was jointly drafted with the ESA in 2007, the ESA itself is not an agency of the European Union.   Continued ESA involved from an independent UK is also not unprecedented. Norway and Switzerland, are both full ESA members but not a part of the EU.  Canada is also involved as a partner state.

The story is the same for the International Space Station (ISS), a corporative program among United States, Russia, Japan,Canada, and ESA member nations administered by NASA in the United States and Roscosmos in Russia.  

Tim Peake, the first UK-born astronaut to serve aboard the ISS, returned to Earth on June 18

In a May CNN interview from the ISS, Peake commented on how leaving the EU might impact the UK:

"The UK will still be part of the European Space Agency, that won't change at all. The European Space Agency is still part of this international partnership here with the International Space Station.” Peake added “it really cuts through all barriers, its such a strong partnership.”

Questions remain about the UK’s involvement in the EU/ESA Galileo partnership however. UK based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) has delivered the primary payload package for 22 of the planned 30 satellites of the Galileo global navigation system. The space based navigation system is similar to the American GPS systems. Bids for the remaining satellites in the EU funded fleet are due soon. The UK’s access to encrypted positioning from Galileo will also likely be among military discussions in coming months.  The EU is contemplating whether to grant ccess to Galileo’s centimeter level positioning capabilities to non-EU member Norway.

If Peake is like his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts, anything that separates his home country probably means a lot less after six months aboard the ISS. People who see the Earth from Low Earth Orbit see our planet very differently. “There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors,” according to the Overview Effect described in researcher Frank White’s book by the same name,