UK alternative to Galileo satnav system fails to clear the launch pad

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Sep 25, 2020

  • Another white elephant crashes back to earth
  • Government will now attempt to "repurpose" OneWeb
  • Trying to turn a technological sow's ear into a silk purse
  • It won't end well

The UK government is abandoning its plan to build and deploy its British Global Navigation Satellite System (BGNSS), the home-grown alternative to the EU's Galileo and the US GPS system. It will bite the dust next Wednesday. Attention (and a lot of cash) will now be focused on trying to turn a technological sow's ear into a silk purse. Yes, an attempt will be made to repurpose bankrupt OneWeb into a system it was not designed to be. What could possibly go wrong?

A couple of years ago Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister before the Churchillian colossus that is Boris Johnson ousted her from office, was thrashing about for any momentary divertissement that would take the eye of the public away from the Brexit imbroglio that eventually brought her down. 

She lit upon the brilliant wheeze of replacing Britain's membership of the EU's Galileo satnav system with a home-grown, thoroughly British alternative. Whilst it didn't quite involve then lighting of beacons around the coasts, men in tricorn hats waving flags from hilltops or the building of huge racks of contra-rotating egg timers, it was always about as realistic a prospect as that of crew of UK astronauts blasting off from the Bognor Regis cosmodrome tomorrow teatime on a round trip to Mars.

Not surprisingly, her plan, the equivalent of the white elephant that was the massive plywood "Spruce Goose" World War II troop transporter aircraft designed by Howard Hughes, which once and only once got to a height of 50 feet flying for a mile across Long Beach harbour, is being dumped.

The UK Space Agency has let it quietly be known that the contacts that had been given to British companies to design and build the British Global Navigation Satellite System "will not be extended beyond their expirations date." That date is Wednesday, September 30, 2020. In other words, in five days time another British government lame duck will become a dead duck.

Having been a member of the EU's Galileo programme since its inception and spending £1.2 billion on contributions to its development, the UK was booted-out of the project when the country left the European Union.

Theresa May presented that national ignominy as a triumph of British international exceptionalism and said our removal would allow us to build our own stand-alone, independent, oven-ready, world-beating. The wunderwaffe satnav system at a cost of no more than £5 billion, give or take a hundred billion or so here and there to be found a while later.

It's a project reset, not a surrender to reality

The government is spinning the story as a "reset" rather than a capitulation to the inevitable. However, and crucially, although the UK military access has access to some of the secret aspects of the US GPS system it has has no replacement for Galileo's Public Regulated Service, which is the partitioned and encrypted military part of the system designed for missile guidance and critical logistics in a time of international tension or possible war.

The decision to abandon Britain's own putative system has opened a rift in the corridors of power with some senior officials and members of parliament said now to be pushing for the UK to be reinstated to membership of Galileo, at more or less any cost. Meanwhile, others want the country to plough-on regardless and re-jig the OneWeb LEO satellite system, on which the country has taken a £500 million punt, to double-up as a navigation and timing system for which it was not designed and which may be technically unfeasible.

That's why interested companies in the space sector are being asked to "put forward innovative solutions'' that would provide the UK with "extra resilience" over that of both the EU's Galileo and the US GPS system. Rumour has it that the panic buying of string and sealing wax has started and will take its place alongside the current run (if that's the right word) on lavatory paper. 

The government's agreed National Space Strategy will finally be published before Christmas when it will be possible for us to read it, over a glass of Yuletide port, in conjunction with the new Beano Annual. The definitive National Space Strategy will remain definitive until at least the summer of 2021 by which time parliament will be looking to kibosh it on grounds of the costs of trying to repurpose OneWeb won't be worth the candle. Please note and remember that OneWeb satellites are designed to provide satellite comms services and not satellite navigation. To convert them will be immensely difficult and hugely expensive - and their orbits will have to be changed. What a doddle.

Only last week the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee heard space scientists and engineers criticise the part acquisition of OneWeb and point up the likelihood that it will turn out to be another technological cul de sac. The writing's already on the wall.

Of course, that didn't prevent a committee apparatchik from saying this;  “The government has set a clear ambition for a sovereign space programme which will bring long-term strategic and commercial benefits for the UK. Work is ongoing across government to determine the UK’s positioning, navigation and timing requirements, and assessing options for meeting them. The UK will not participate in the Galileo system." Wanna bet?

Earlier this year, Dr. Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in International Relations and Space Policy at the UK's Leicester University commented. "I don't know what prestige will be gained as the UK GNSS is widely seen as a waste of resources" and "a political vanity project"" - which it certainly was. Fortunately, the EU is indicating that, in due course, it will allow a chastened  UK back as a member of Galileo when the post-Brexit rumpus eventually calms down and the government stops pfeffeling about. Some time around about 2030 then, long after the inevitable losses from the nonsensical OneWeb "plan" have been written through and off the government books.

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