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Case study 06

European Space Agency

Much of the science conducted at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory falls under the umbrella of the European Space Agency. Brexit would jeopardise the UK’s stake, with the knock-on effect of denying other environmental bodies access to vital data.

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire – which is operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council –  is home to RAL Space, a facility developing technology to support international satellite exploration missions.

Among the most iconic features of the RAL sites are the ground station antennae, the largest being 25m in diameter.

RAL Space has contributed to dozens of satellite missions, including the famous Cassini-Huygens – one of the most successful space exploration efforts ever made.

The 20-year Cassini-Huygens mission has returned a wealth of data, including breathtaking images of Jupiter and Saturn – which other environmental research organisations also draw on for their own work.

“The beautifully detailed images of Jupiter’s atmosphere give us vital information about planetary physics,” says Dr Chris Wilson, a climate scientist at the National Oceanography Centre.

“They also teach us about dynamics controlling Earth’s atmosphere and ocean, and phenomena such as the ozone hole and the Gulf stream.”

RAL Space usually focuses attention closer to home. “Actually, most of our work is on Earth observations,” says one Prospect member on the team. “I’m working on the European Space Agency’s Copernicus programme. We monitor environmental and security-related satellite data.”

The European Space Agency coordinates the financial and intellectual capabilities of its members towards a common goal. Copernicus is the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme to date.

“As the science has caught up with the explosion in environmental satellite data, we’ve identified the gaps in the observations,” the member adds.

“Working together across national borders, each partner can contribute according to their specialist expertise. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. Nobody can achieve something of this scale working alone.”

The importance of satellite data to environmental research has been growing since the first environmental satellites were launched in the early 1970s.

Copernicus builds on the success of missions such as the European Remote Sensing satellites, ERS-1 and ERS-2. The ERS missions provided diagnostics such as sea surface temperature, ocean colour, and ozone.

The wider environmental research community acknowledges the importance of RAL Space in giving the UK a foothold in European space science.

NOC’s Chris Wilson says: “Satellite data are crucial for weather and climate prediction. It takes collaboration and investment between the best international experts. Without it, climate modellers like me would not be able to produce the most skilful predictions.”

Prospect members at RAL are worried that the future of their work with ESA is uncertain.
“ESA and the EU are separate organisations, but they are very much intertwined; 20% of ESA funds come straight from the EU budget,” says one member. “The government decision to leave Euratom has knocked our confidence in its commitment to intergovernmental research.”

Won’t UK scientists have access to the satellite data anyway? “If we lose our status as full collaborators in Copernicus, we may lose access rights to the data. We would certainly lose our right to influence the direction of the programme.”