Galileo: David Morris outlines UK’s role in project
The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), also known as Galileo, was built to rival the US’ GPS system, boasting a Public Regulated Service (PRS) to be used by government agencies, the armed forces and emergency services when it goes live in 2026. But the EU determined its most crucial feature – PRS – would only be accessible for bloc members when the first satellite launches. This will mean that despite the UK providing the “brains and heart” of the project, it will be unable to use it.
European Space Agency (ESA) officials confirmed last week that Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) had shipped the last of the navigation payloads it was assembling.
Britain’s “third country” status means UK-based companies can no longer be involved in the way they once were.
SSTL played a pivotal role in its more than 15-year involvement in the Galileo programme.
Not only did it assemble all 34 “full operation” payloads for the system, but it also built the satellite that initiated Galileo.
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The UK has left the Galileo project
Called Giove-A, this spacecraft, launched in 2005, was the pathfinder that secured for the EU the use of its all-important radio frequencies.
Without those frequencies, there would be no Galileo.
Britain contributed around £1.2billion to the creation of the bloc’s £10billion system, but Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee David Morris says that ”has been left with the programme”.
He previously told Express.co.uk: “Going forward any benefit on Galileo will route through European companies and the benefit will be lost to us.”
The Government, seeking a replacement for Galileo, has considered alternatives to an original plan to develop its own satellite constellation.
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This now means scrapping former Prime Minister Theresa May’s £5billion proposal for a UK GNSS system by pursuing OneWeb – the low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband constellation that the Government, along with Indian company Bharti Global, acquired from bankruptcy.
The new Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme (SBPP) will “consider newer, more innovative ideas of delivering global ‘Sat-Nav’ and secure satellite services to meet public, Government and industry needs”.
British companies previously involved in Galileo will be hoping a concrete proposal comes forward soon so that they can transfer across all the knowledge and expertise built up over two decades.
But the UK will not be able to keep hold of them all.
Mr Morris explained: “SSTL was bought by Airbus and its development heart has been moved to Toulouse.
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David Morris said the money had been left with the EU
“The UK needs to be much better at defending and retaining its space interests.
“It now owns 50 percent of OneWeb but Inmarsat, once listed on the London Stock exchange, was taken private last year and now owned by Private Equity and Canadian pension funds.
“We could apply to use Galileo and pay for the Service. Both Norway and the US have applied to do so. I really don’t understand what Mrs May’s team were doing in withdrawing us.
“Maybe it was another Remainer ploy to damage us.”
SSTL representatives said last week they were immensely proud of what they had achieved.
Britain and the EU have agreed in principle that they should continue to cooperate on the bloc’s other big space project – Copernicus.
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This operates a constellation of Sentinel satellites in orbit to monitor the Earth.
London and Brussels hope to shake hands on the exact terms of the UK’s involvement in the coming weeks.
It would see Britain pay a subscription of roughly £710million over seven years, which would give it full access to Copernicus services and the ability for its companies to bid for industrial work.
As with Galileo, Copernicus satellites are procured on behalf of the EU by ESA.
The agency’s director of Earth observation, Josef Aschbacher, said last Thursday that continued UK involvement would be to the benefit of all involved.
He told the BBC: “The UK is now negotiating with the European Commission under which conditions and how this participation looks in detail.
Theresa May’s proposal has been dropped
“But this is certainly excellent from an ESA perspective because we have a very strong partner in the UK – their expertise is essential.
“So I’m really, really happy that the UK is hopefully joining the Brussels’ part of the programme.”
OneWeb has re-started launches of its satellites, with more than 100 now in orbit in preparation for a commercial service in 2021.
The latest launch, in December, saw 36 satellites blasted into low earth orbit (LEO).
There are now 110 of the satellites, built by Airbus, in orbit as part of a plan for 648 satellites.
The launch on a Soyuz rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia followed the recovery from bankruptcy in a deal worth £1billion.
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And there appears to be slim hope that the breakthrough might gain the UK a seat around the Galileo table.
Mr Morris continued: “If you think about Galileo compared to the figure for OneWeb, I’d say the system is worth more than the £500million that we’ve invested.
“We have got a real good investment, almost a bargain really – it’s already up and running and making two satellites a day.
“Other partners want to get involved and it will pay for itself very quickly indeed.
“My gut feeling on the way that it’s going is that even though everyone is talking tough, saying, ‘You can’t be part of the Galileo club,’ there’s been a lot of British investment in it already
“I think there will be knock-on effects from that to the British companies.”
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OneWeb was designed as a broadband constellation first and foremost – it will provide rural 4G, and one day 5G, internet signals in hard-to-reach places.
OneWeb says the latest news puts it on track to offer global internet services to customers starting with the UK, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas, and Canada in 2021 with global service following in 2022.
But Mr Morris says it has the potential for so much more and that will spark the curiosity of the bloc.
He added: “Over time you are going to see more British involvement with Galileo, even if it doesn’t come through government sources.
“We’ll still be dealing with them, even if it’s not through the Government’s balance sheet.
“All these systems can be interlinked. I think we will still be working with Galileo in one form or another, even though – officially – the politicians are saying we won’t have any dealings with it whatsoever.
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“I’m absolutely certain that on a certain level we will.
“There’s potential for us to let them use OneWeb as a trade-off for Galileo.”
The company’s constellation will operate in LEO rather than the medium Earth orbits used by Galileo, GPS and other navigation systems.
It will also operate at a different frequency than those traditionally used for navigation.
But while the plan will see OneWeb’s first run of satellites used for broadband, future developments could include navigation capacity.
It will be a huge moment for the British space sector, but the move will also put the UK in direct competition with Elon Musk’s Starlink, which already has 500 satellites in space.