One does not simply repurpose an entire internet constellation for sat-nav, but UK might have a go anyway

Blighty pondering OneWeb as the new Brexit Satellite


The saga of the UK's Brexit Satellite (BS)* took another turn last week as rumours circulated that the government might take a stake in stricken OneWeb with a view to repurposing the constellation for satellite navigation.

Blighty has been floundering following the realisation that departing the EU would mean losing access to the club's benefits, including the more sensitive bits of the Galileo navigation system (to which the UK has contributed a substantial pot of money).

Galileo is the EU's take on the US GPS system and features a Public Regulated Service (PRS) for military and other security purposes. As it dawned on lawmakers that the UK would lose access to this service, the mighty British government swung into action, spending £92m for a report on what could be done.

EU tells UK: Cut the BS, sign here, and you can have access to Galileo sat's secure service

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It had already been told that a homegrown version of Galileo would cost in the order of £3b-£5bn, and that report? Conspicuous by its absence.

Enter OneWeb, which filed for bankruptcy in the US in March and has a constellation of 74 satellites already in orbit. Heck, it even has a UK HQ – a match made in heaven, surely?

Er, not quite. For starters, OneWeb's satellites are designed for internet connectivity; more Starlink than sat-nav. The 150kg satellites operate in the Ku-band and the constellation (which will eventually top 600 satellites if launches continue) will deliver speeds of "more than 400Mbps".

The satellites are not designed to provide the centimetre levels of positioning accuracy on offer by the competition.

That said, operating a navigation system in the Low Earth Orbit of OneWeb (rather than Medium Earth Orbit of something like Galileo) is feasible, although fiddling with the payloads of the existing spacecraft and dealing with the ground infrastructure is, at best, technically challenging.

However, since a straight copy and paste is not on the cards for the Brexit Satellite, slapping the Union Jack on the side of OneWeb's birds will have a certain appeal to UK lawmakers looking down the barrel of £5bn or more to start from scratch.

Reports in The Guardian and behind the FT's paywall have the UK government signing off on a deal that would see it taking a 20 per cent stake in OneWeb, potentially putting around £500m on the line.

While The Register understands that discussions are ongoing across government (likely along the lines of "you want to buy what?"), no formal comment has been made on the specifics "due to commercial sensitivities".

While the move has industry insiders and watchers alike scratching their heads, some have suggested that perhaps the UK should spend its millions on research into an alternative.

The Research and Development Office of Dundee Satellite Station Ltd told us that GPS dated back to the Cold War era, and the satellites were subject to space warfare. "Money," it said, "could be better spent on quantum compass technology that would obviate the need for satellites."

Alternatively, the UK government could just swallow some national pride and sign up for one of the existing systems. Back in 2018, space policy expert Dr Bleddyn Bowen reckoned the £92m needed for the BS study would be better used to stimulate the launch market for small sat flingers in the UK. £500m would doubtless be more than welcomed by embryonic facilities such as the Sutherland Space Port.

Still, we have a tea towel to remind us that, virus aside, the UK is going through interesting times. Perhaps a Brit-centric navigation system will be just the thing to render eyesight-testing jaunts to the likes of Barnard Castle a thing of the past. ®

*Obviously not what it will be called.


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