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UK finds European space program profitable, ramps up investment

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International Space Station
International Space Station

The UK plans to increase its contribution to Europe's space program, in the hopes of attracting lucrative contracts and spurring domestic job growth. The country currently contribues £170 million ($271 million) per year to the European Space Agency (ESA), but Chancellor George Osborne told BBC News today that his government will increase that figure by £60 million ($96 million) over the next two years.

The move comes at a time when many countries are cutting back on space programs, particularly across cash-strapped Europe. Since 2010, the UK has cut spending on civil research programs by five percent, and while many sectors have contracted in the wake of the global financial crisis, the British space industry has seen a resurgence, growing by 7.5 percent since 2008. The country's ESA contributions have paid dividends as well, with its investment in ESA's satellite program producing returns of more than six-to-one.

The British buck the trend

These robust returns have apparently resonated with UK officials, who see the potential for Britain to become a leader in Europe's space industry. Osborne formally announced the decision to increase spending in a speech to the Royal Society this week, ahead of this month's Naples Ministerial Council, where ESA member countries will collaborate on an agenda for the next ten years. In an interview with BBC News, UK Science Minister David Willets stressed the importance of the space industry as a driver of economic growth, echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Penny for NASA" campaign here in the US.

"We have underestimated the strength of our space industry," Willetts said. "In fact, we are a global player in satellite and telecommunications technology. This additional investment is a signal to ESA and commercial companies that we are going to continue to support space science and technology."