Dan Daren't. Britain to take back control in space - by not building its own satnav system

  • UK disbarred by Brexit from participating in the EU's Galileo satnav system
  • So will pilot to the future by spending £500 million for a part of bankrupt US satellite company OneWeb
  • Company HQ is in London but assets, business interests and management are in the US
  • Other bidders for OneWeb include China and France. So much for independence

In another Brexit triumph it has emerged that the UK government is to spend upwards of half a billion pounds on taking a 20 per cent part share in the semi-defunct US-founded, London-headquartered low-earth-orbit satellite firm OneWeb, a company that filed for bankruptcy just three months ago. Having been included-out of participation in the EU's Galileo satnav system, to which UK taxpayers have contributed £1.2 billion in what can best be described as "chump change" (within the literal meaning of the word "chump").

Brits will now pay a minimum of £500 million to get a fifth of a company whose main assets and business interests are in the US and whose senior management is American. It's all horribly reminiscent of the incident last year when while prepping for a no-deal Brexit the idiot who was the Minister of Transport awarded a £38.8 million contract to a seaborne ferry company with no ships.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, was  the  cover strip in the massively popular Eagle comic. Dan Dare was the archetypical stiff-upper-lip hero and a throwback to the RAF pilots of the recently-ended Second World War. He fought valiantly with all sorts of aliens to save the Earth from endless perils and to preserve the British way of life. While there is no resemblance between Dan Dare and any current politicians, his arch-enemy The Mekon, bears a striking similarity to a certain senior government advisor.

And now, back to the story...

The original plan was for the UK to develop its own John Bull satnav system, beholden to no-one and proudly flying the flag as it orbited the between the Tower of London and Balmoral Castle. However, when the expected minimum costs were calculated, the £5 billion price tag made the government wince and the independent system was abandoned.

Meanwhile, the HS2high speed train line between London and Birmingham is to go ahead. The cost of the 90 mile link that will, at best, shave 29 minutes off the one hour, twenty minute choo-choo puffer trip from London to Birmingham  was originally budgeted to cost £30.6 billion. It is now £106 billion and rising daily. 

And it'll cost at least a further £7.8 billion for engines and rolling stock. It seems no-one had thought about what would actually run on the rails. No track has yet been laid and the first phase of HS2 will not be completed before 2031 at the earliest. Given that, and in all seriousness, Britain's satnav system probably wouldn't have been up and running much before 2050.

The EU's Galileo project began back in 1999, some operational satellites were in orbit from 2011 and the project should be completed and fully operational before the end of 2020. The UK contributed greatly to one of the most critical components of Galileo; the Public Regulated Service (PRS). This is an encrypted satnav service reserved for the use of  the armed forces, government agencies and emergency services. It will come into use within the next few months but Britain, no longer an EU member, is not allowed access to it. Several studies have concluded that in excess of 11 per cent of UK GDP is supported directly by satnav systems. 

 All a part of the Mekon's dastardly plot

Bids to buy into what remains of OneWeb are due in today and the decision that the UK would make a competitive bid for 20 per cent of the company was made only on Wednesday. The other bidders look like being an interesting bunch and are known to include China and France. How's that for irony? What's more, the government may not get a clear run at getting the 20 per cent it wants and may have to up-the-ante considerably if the bidding is fierce. Isn't independence from Europe just grand?

The government hype machine is presenting the decision to bid as evidence that it is determined to put the UK in the vanguard of space technology. It is not mentioning the fact that the purchase, if successful, will mean the British nation state will own the assets. It is also likely that a successful bid would place Britain in head-to-head competition with some massive, and massively rich, global companies.

It is said that the infamous Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to the UK Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Peffel Johnson, convinced his boss to invest in OneWeb, so we can all be sure it is a rational decision arrived at after due and full consideration of all aspects and ramifications.

Traditionally, state ownership of anything is anathema to a Conservative government - but Covid19 changed that overnight. So, after 10 very long, very hard years of utterly pointless but remorseless austerity that saw public services and infrastructure cut to the bone and poverty rise, the Tory government is now throwing money around like the crew of the Peaqoud newly back from a successful whaling trip and anticipating another big pay day in a month or two when they tow Moby Dick into Nantucket harbour.

Another factor that won Prime Minister Johnson over to bidding for a stake in One Web was the Satellite Applications Catapult. This sounds like the device seen hanging out the back pants pocket of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace in the venerable and beloved UK weekly comic, "The Beano". 

However, according to the organisations own blurb, the catapult exists "to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in specific areas and to help drive future economic growth", to "help organisations make use of, and benefit from, satellite technologies, and bring together multi-disciplinary teams to generate ideas and solutions in an open innovation environment and "to support UK industry by accelerating the growth of satellite applications and to contribute to capturing a 10 per cent share of the global space market by 2030."At h this very moment the Catapult is drawing back the elastic and readying to let fly with a new, unique and "game-changing" positioning technology that could be installed on OneWeb satellites.

Prior to going into Chapter 11 insolvency (after failing to get investors to pony-up another US$2 billion in funding: they obviously know something we don't) OneWeb planned to launch a constellation of 650 satellites into low-earth orbit at an altitude of 750 miles that would provide global Internet broadband by next year.

However, the company declared itself bankrupt in late March this year and made almost all personnel redundant but had managed to launch 74 satellites before it did so. Bankrupt it might be but OneWeb isn't short of ambition. Despite being bust. Last month the company filed an application with the US regulator, the FCC, to increase the size of its satellite constellation to 4,800! OneWeb satellites are manufactured in Florida as part of a joint venture with the EU's Airbus consortium.

By the time all the costs and inevitable mis-steps that are to come, given that the government is spending like no other government has ever done before, that the UK faces the worst recession in 300 years and unemployment is expected to rocket (forgive the pun) this autumn and winter, a £5 billion million punt on a national satnav system may yet turn out to to be a relatively inexpensive and very useful missed opportunity.

Meanwhile the hundreds of low-earth-orbit satellites already surrounding the earth will soon be joined by thousands more. Given OneWeb's plans to put 4,800 more up and the intent by Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man who is behind the grandiose Kuiper project to punt up another 3,200  LEO satellites, the heavens are going to be pretty damn full. Indeed, given today's news that space tourists will soon be able to space walk when they are on a trip they should be able to jump from one LEOsat to another in a game of celestial hopscotch. Dan Dare would be an ace at that.

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