Britain is to set up a dedicated agency to direct its space policy.
The new organisation is expected to have a budget and will represent the UK in all its dealings with international partners.
The announcement, made by the Science Minister Lord Drayson, follows a 12-week consultation held with academia, industry and government departments.
Britain spends about £270m a year on space, most of it via its membership of the European Space Agency (Esa). But it also has a highly successful industry which currently contributes some £6.5bn a year to the UK economy.
“Our space sector hasn’t missed a beat during this recession,” said Lord Drayson. “This is the classic story of outstanding UK science and entrepreneurship continuing to create jobs and achieve exceptional growth.
Consultation UK space agency
“The new space agency is about making sure that the UK fully exploits its competitive advantage in satellites, robotics and related technologies.”
Whereas Germany, France and Italy have national space agencies that speak with single voices backed up by single budgets, the UK’s approach has been to devolve space policy decisions to a club of “users” facilitated by a civil service unit called the British National Space Centre (BNSC).
These users are the government departments and research councils that have interests in space science or space-borne services.
The arrangement was supposed to ensure that limited space funding chased “need” and “value”. But critics complained the approach only promoted self-interest and made it hard for the UK to adopt coherent positions on big international programmes – where much space activity is now directed.
The hope is that a more top-down structure can overcome some of the perceived weaknesses of the past, and drive more and better co-operation among the different space-user groups.
The UK acquired its first Esa astronaut – Tim Peake – this year
However, it is not completely clear yet how the agency will be funded.
The BBC understands there are at least two models on the table. One would see the public monies currently allocated to users being issued to the agency instead. Another would see the monies remain with the users who would then “subscribe” to programmes directed by the agency.
The latter model is how the European Space Agency works, although it also has a core budget of its own.
“In principle, having an agency is excellent news,” said Richard Peckham, the chairman of UK Space, an umbrella group representing the British industrial space sector.
“Whether it is a success or not will depend on the implementation.
“Just calling it an agency is not enough; it has to be empowered at the right level. It also needs a policy – a clear vision of what it is that needs to be delivered; and we haven’t had that to date,” he told BBC News.
The space sector is a major employer and revenue earner
The announcement of an agency is just the latest in a series of initiatives affecting British space interests.
In July, Esa finally opened a technical centre in Britain – the only one of its major members not to have such a showcase facility. It also appointed a British national, Major Tim Peake, to its astronaut corps in May.
The government has initiated a review of UK space activity to try to identify the key trends that businesses can exploit in the coming years. This is due to report in the coming weeks.
Another space study was published on Thursday. The Space Exploration Review examines the options for future UK participation in the global effort to push humans out across the Solar System, especially at locations such as the Moon and Mars. It identifies the technological and economic opportunities that the UK could exploit and that fit with its particular areas of expertise, for
example in robotics.