HL Deb 14 January 2001 vol 630 cc830-2

2.51 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the main priorities of the United Kingdom's Space-Science and Technology programmes, following the European Space Agency ministerial meeting in Edinburgh in November.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, at the European Space Agency Ministerial Council in Edinburgh, the Government pursued their main priorities in space by investing in programmes to develop future commercial space markets, underpin future environmental policy and support outstanding scientific achievements. The main UK commitments were: almost £90 million in new communication satellite systems over six years; £147 million spread over 10 years towards the European Space Agency's Living Planet research programme; more than £15 million towards developing operational environmental satellite systems; and more than £130 million for astronomy and planetary science projects over four years.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree with the new director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in the United States, that the international space station is too expensive, and with many European scientists and engineers that earth-observing, space-science and communications satellites should be the main focus of Europe's space efforts? Will he also assure the House that UK government funding will be sufficient to enable the maximum participation by the UK space industry in those programmes? I declare my interest as a professor in space and climate physics.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I certainly agree that the international space station, which I think is now costed at 40 billion dollars, is not clearly—in most people's terms—value for money, and that space investment is much better focused on the three matters that I mentioned: outstanding science, commercial opportunities, and the key environmental observation policies such as Envisat, the InfoTerra/TerraSar project, GMES and the Living Planet science programme.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, does the Minister accept that Edinburgh provided a missed opportunity for Her

Majesty's Government in relation to the Galileo project—which noble Lords will remember is intended to achieve an independent, satellite-based navigation system? Does he accept that Galileo provides a significant opportunity for the British space industry and British industry generally? Does he also accept that, in space-speak, if the Government are not prepared to provide funding in addition to their European commitments—and in line with funding provided by Germany, Spain, Italy and France—although the project may well be a small step for the European Union countries, the Government will have taken no giant leap in Edinburgh?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the UK Government are very supportive of Galileo, and our position is entirely consistent with the decisions on Galileo reached at Laeken, where the various Prime Ministers asked the Transport Council to come to a decision on funding for Galileo, in March, having taken account of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on it. If a decision is taken to go ahead, we shall contribute to it.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, will the Minister say whether any of the committed funds will improve the observation of potentially hazardous near-earth objects? Is he aware that, earlier in the month, there was one potentially hazardous near-earth object that was very close in planetary terms and about which we had only 25 days' warning? Will any of the funds improve the vigilance that I, and many others, believe is necessary in this area?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I think that a part of ESA's potential science programme would cover near-earth objects. However, in view of the sums that were allocated to the programme, it is rather unlikely that that will be one of its first priorities. I remind the House that we have just recently updated the actions that the Government are taking on the matter, including not only making the National Space Science Centre the information centre for the UK on near-earth objects, but a programme to use our telescopes at La Palma for tracking near-earth objects. There will be a trial use of those telescopes in February.

Lord Rea

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a small group of us on the Science and Technology Select Committee recently visited the space science research centre at Leicester? The work that it is doing is not only—forgive me—blue skies research, looking at other planets and galaxies, but has some very practical uses in observing the earth's atmosphere and surface from a great height, which has very considerable and quite immediate economic benefits. Will he assure us that the funding which he mentioned for space research in this country will enable that centre and others like it to have stable funding in the next five to 10 years?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I do not think that I can guarantee that there will be stable funding for any such individual space laboratory, although I think that Leicester is a very good laboratory and likely to receive more than its fair share of funds. I assure the noble Lord that we are putting very substantial sums into projects that have great relevance to monitoring projects to do with earth observation. I think that such projects are very important. I also hope that it is clear from my comments that we are putting very large sums into the Envisat and InfoTerra/TerraSar project—which is very relevant to geo-information products and services, and will answer some of the key questions. The Living Planet science programme will, for example, investigate whether ice sheets are melting and what impact that might have on the gulf stream. Those are very relevant and important issues.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, when the United States has a highly successful global positioning satellite system giving world coverage, why is it necessary for Europe, at vast expense, to produce its own global positioning satellite system?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, there are a number of very good reasons. The first is that, if the Americans have a total monopoly of global positioning systems, which will have enormous economic applications in the next 20 years, they will do what we and any other country would do: ensure that their industry has first use of it. That is the key issue. The second reason, which I do not think is widely understood, is that we require GPS and Galileo to work together and be inter-operable to ensure the necessary robustness for some of the more sophisticated projects on, for example, aircraft control. One simply cannot conduct such projects with GPS alone. Therefore, Galileo—and its inter-operability with GPS, on which discussions are in progress—is clearly the route forward.