Near-earth Satellites - Question

– in the House of Lords am 3:09 pm ar 13 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Llafur 3:09, 13 Tachwedd 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to work with international partners to regulate the use of commercial near-earth satellites to combat any adverse effects on astronomy.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Llafur

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, especially as the House may not appreciate the potential risks to astronomy from a new generation of near-earth satellites.

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, before I start, I bring the House’s attention to my registered interests. With the number of satellites in orbit growing rapidly, the UK recognises the need for trade-offs between the requirements of the astronomical community and those of the satellite operators. The UK has advocated strongly on dark and quiet skies as part of our leadership on sustainable space activities. We continue to support efforts to identify mitigation measures at international forums as we deliver the goals of the National Space Strategy.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Llafur

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Would he agree that, with satellites now designed to transmit signals to earth across the whole of the earth, the previous protection for radio astronomy has been diminished? Would he therefore agree to give a commitment on behalf of the Government to seek to protect astronomy facilities both in the UK and around the world, perhaps in line with the protection afforded to the Effelsberg observatory in Germany? Finally, given the Government’s significant stake in OneWeb, will the Minister try to ensure that, in the next generation of satellites, measures are introduced, along the lines of the International Astronomical Union, to protect our astronomy facilities to the greatest extent possible?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for bringing up this very important subject. The UK will always consider how it can best work internationally with partners to enable science and technology, including radio astronomy. The UK is working with the international community to understand the requirements for the protection of our skies for both astronomers and the indigenous populations. We are also scoping the range of potential technological and policy solutions available to accommodate those requirements as fully as possible. The IAU proposals are a valuable addition to our work in understanding the space standards we should consider for sustainable space operations. We are working closely with international colleagues and the UK space sector to develop standards fit for the future space operating environment. Great Britain is leading the world in this sector.

Photo of Lord Cromwell Lord Cromwell Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Kessler effect, whereby items circulating above this planet are either hitting or being hit by other objects, creating more debris that then goes on to hit other things and so on ad infinitum? Secondly, is he aware that, of the satellites circling above our heads right now, 85% do not carry insurance? Does he consider these two factors satisfactory and, if not, what should be done about this?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord asks two good questions. On his first, a recent summit pointed to Europe making a commercial step change, launching and celebrating the zero debris treaty and ESA’s commitment to deliver a cargo return mission to the international space station. The main output from the ESA council, at ministerial level, was the approval of ESA’s director-general’s resolution on lifting Europe’s ambitions for a green and sustainable future, and access to space and space exploration. On the question about insurance, I am not familiar with that, so I will write to the noble Lord.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, these satellites are now set to fill space at a rate of over 1,000 a year until 2030. In the Government’s National Space Strategy in Action paper of July this year, the Minister, George Freeman, said:

The UK will lead the pack on regulatory standards, promoting competition whilst ending the wild west nature of space today”.

How will the Government do that? How will they, for instance, get their space sustainability standard adopted internationally?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

As I said just a moment ago, we are world leaders in this. My honourable friend Minister George Freeman announced the first ever UK plan for space sustainability—an ambitious package showing UK leadership and commitment on this issue. The Minister also chairs the space sustainability round table, bringing together key members from industry, finance, insurance and academia to focus on the key issues of space sustainability. I assure the noble Lord that Great Britain is leading this way on this with our European and international partners.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I welcome the merger, but can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what influence the French Government will have as a result of it?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, France holds a 13.58% in the Eutelsat group through the Public Investment Bank, or BPI, and its sovereign wealth fund. His Majesty’s Government now have a 10.8% share in the Eutelsat group and retain their existing special rights and vetoes via a special share in OneWeb. His Majesty’s Government can appoint one director to the board of the Eutelsat group and one director to OneWeb’s board, so Great Britain is in control of the merger and OneWeb’s role in it.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Llafur

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point, but is not it also true that one of the greatest problems facing astronomy is light pollution, as has been recorded recently by the Science and Technology Committee? Is not that a real issue for understanding astronomy better? Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in many parts of the world that are overpopulated are unable to observe what is going on in the night sky, which is a serious disadvantage to our better understanding of satellites and astronomy, and giving attention to this problem.

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord is exactly right. It is a case of the urban and the countryside. If you live in the city, it is often very difficult, due to light pollution. I am fortunate enough to live in the Peak District, where we have no light pollution and we can see the stars. I am not sure that I have an answer to the noble Lord’s questions. When designing our modern cities, they could reduce the number of lights that are left on. When noble Lords go home this evening, they will see an awful lot of light pollution in the vicinity. As the noble Lord points out, planning for the future is the key, so that our cities do not produce so much light and young people can enjoy the delights of space.

Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as a one-time vice-chairman of Eutelsat. What was the historic rationale for the UK Government to invest in the soon-to-be-bankrupt OneWeb, and what is the rationale now for the UK to hold an investment in Eutelsat OneWeb?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord asks a very good question. I was not privy to the original decision-making, as he may well appreciate, but I think that it was a decision well made, because Great Britain needs to be kept within this relatively new sector, and that was the motivation for the investment of taxpayers’ money originally. The reason for keeping that stake, as it is for the French Government, is to make sure that we can have some influence, and that any inward investment that comes into future satellites comes into the United Kingdom, bringing well-paid jobs and investment into the UK.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Llafur

My Lords, the Minister earlier cited very favourably the work that Mr Freeman, the Science Minister, is doing on this issue, and how important he is to the work. What are the implications of the fact that he has just been sacked?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord never lets us down, does he? My understanding, in answer to the question, is that he resigned and was not sacked—but I was hoping that the noble Lord would ask about future investment in Scotland.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that from 1 January we are rejoining the Copernicus Programme. The Sentinel system for Copernicus of near-earth orbiting satellites provides us with absolutely vital data, not least in relation to climate change. How might the British space industry, as a world leader, benefit from our rejoining Copernicus in the next three years?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

That is a very specific question about rejoining that organisation, and I do not have an answer to it for my noble friend, but I shall certainly write on that specific point.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, there are already an estimated 36,000 near-earth space objects circulating around our planet, and the prospect of many thousands more commercial satellites being launched in the coming decade. Given the prospect of serious collisions, what are the Government doing to create an agreement on cleaning up space junk—for example, by bringing down satellites when they have finished the end of their mission, and so on? Is this an issue on which the Government should take a role as global leaders, to make sure that we are leading the way rather than following in the footsteps of other countries?

Photo of Lord Evans of Rainow Lord Evans of Rainow Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness raises a very good point. The UK collaborates internationally to develop standards, regulations, norms of behaviour, agreements and best practice to influence and define the in-orbit regime of the future. That includes exactly what the noble Baroness is pointing to around how we remove satellites and other space junk when they come to the end of their active life. There are technologies out there, such as, for want of a better word, a giant magnet that grabs hold of it and puts it somewhere. Some of these satellites contain valuable metals, so it is in the long-term interest to remove them. Technologies are happening, and I am assured by the department that it is something that Great Britain is leading on.