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Brexit Britains satellite threat falls flat with Brussels

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The U.K.s threat to launch its own version of the Galileo navigational satellite system over a Brexit spat with Brussels has one big black hole: Any alternative version is unlikely to match the value of sticking with the EUs program.

Londons access to the encrypted part of Galileo, called the Public Regulated Service and needed by the military to guide missiles and plan operations, is emerging as a key conflict in talks over the U.K.s impending departure, with the EU saying that as a third country Britain would no longer have access to such sensitive data.

That prompted Business Secretary Greg Clark to warn earlier this month that the government will set up a task force to “develop options for an independent satellite navigation system using the world-beating expertise of Britains thriving space sector.”

The threat of a new British system to power location services for civilian use while providing a secure data signal for armies isnt causing Brussels to lose much sleep.

“Its completely pointless,” an EU official who worked on the Galileo project said of Britains plans. “Its a declaration of independence. A needless political statement.”

The initiative to work on a British alternative to Galileo that would be compatible with the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) comes as the EU shuts U.K. companies out of further contracts for Galileo. A backup facility for receiving military-grade data from Galileo was recently moved from Swanwick in England to Madrid.

Losing access to Galileos security system contracts threatens to undermine the U.K.s high-tech sector and embolden other aerospace countries such as France.

And Brussels is also moving to exclude London from the secure Public Regulated Service aspects of the project, according to a letter sent by the European Commission in January.

“This [PRS] signal is very robust and is a guarantee you can navigate in times of crisis,” the EU official said.

Non-EU members can access the PRS signal if they meet certain conditions, but under EU rules “security restrictions” are in place for third countries that want to work on developing the project, and that excludes companies from working on the military-grade aspects of the constellation.

“Now is the right time to start thinking about adjusting cooperation regarding the Galileo program to the way the EU cooperates with other third countries in such matters,” a European Commission spokesperson said.

UK high-tech sector at risk

That sentiment has upset London, with ministers warning Britains absence will delay completion of the Galileo satellite constellation. Key contracts for Galileo have been previously awarded to companies like Airbus units Surrey Satellite Technology and Astrium for work in the U.K.

Britain also already hosts Galileo monitoring stations on the Falklands and Ascension Island, and officials in London underline that both sides benefit from continued cooperation.

“Without the assurance that U.K. industry can collaborate on an equal basis and without continued access to the necessary security-related information, the U.K could be obliged to end its participation in the project,” the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said.

While the U.K. has paid 12 percent of the cost of the €10 billion project despite initially fiercely opposing its development, British companies have secured about 15 percent of Galileo contracts.

Losing access to Galileos security system contracts threatens to undermine the U.K.s high-tech sector and embolden other aerospace countries such as France, which will aim to poach contracts and highly skilled staff.

The U.K. Space Agencys annual budget is some £387 million, and £289 million of that goes to the European Space Agency | Manuel Pedoussant/European Space Agency via Getty Images

Alexandra Stickings, a researcher on space policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said if Britain pulls out of Galileo to go it alone, it puts future cooperation with the Paris-based European Space Agency (ESA) at risk and undermines a U.K. target of controlling 10 percent of the global space industry by 2030.

The U.K. Space Agencys annual budget is some £387 million, and £289 million of that goes to ESA — meaning British officials would need to significantly increase funding to get a system in place by the mid-2020s as the government has boasted.

Crowded space

There are already four global navigation satellite systems in orbit — Galileo, GPS, Russias GLONASS and Chinas BeiDou. Attempting to launch a fifth British version would need years of development and billions in spending to mimic those already place, the EU official said.

Christopher Newman, a professor on space policy at Northumbria University, said talk of creating a British indigenous system should be a “last resort” rather than “first response” in talks over Galileo.

“A deal [on continued Galileo membership] would be substantially cheaper,” Newman said. “There is so much more the U.K. could spend this money on in terms of space activity rather than replicating something weve already invested heavily in.”

Aspirations to build a spaceport in Cornwall wouldnt help any rival to Galileo much either, as satellites of the kind needed to provide navigational signals are best launched from sites near the equator — like the EUs facility at Kourou in French Guiana.

Global coverage for a full GPS-style navigation system requires at least 18 satellites, and Galileo is set to have 30 in orbit, eventually, including backups.

“Britain isnt really playing its cards well in negotiating this with Brussels by saying Fine, well do our own version,” said Bleddyn Bowen, a lecturer on space policy at the University of Leicester. “Thats just not a believable option.”

A low-cost alternative could be to develop an augmentation system — like those being developed by Japan and India, and the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) used in the EU already to augment GPS, the EU official said.

That would boost existing signals using a modest satellite presence and a network of ground-based facilities, possibly from sites across the U.K.s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. The U.K. already hosts facilities for the EU as part of the EGNOS system, too.

Global coverage for a full GPS-style navigation system requires at least 18 satellites, and Galileo is set to have 30 in orbit, eventually, including backups. Deciding on an augmentation network stretching from the Falklands to Bermuda could rely on just two satellites by mobilizing parts of the Commonwealth.

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