The UK's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy today denied the government had reconsidered its position on Galileo following weekend reports about it ditching plans for a homegrown alternative.
As for whether it intends to spin up a UK-made satellite navigation system – one of the initiatives spewed out by former UK Prime Minister Theresa May's government – BEIS refused to respond to direct questions.
The idea that the UK might build its very own system first came about as May's ministers realised that Britain would be excluded from the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of the EU-funded Galileo constellation, and that UK industry would be barred from bidding on the lucrative contracts following its exit from the EU.
One does not simply repurpose an entire internet constellation for sat-nav, but UK might have a go anywayREAD MORE
The plan, back in 2018, was to spend £92m on a report into what was possible and what it might cost ahead of the billions needed to design, build and launch the Brexit Satellite (BS)* constellation.
That report has been conspicuous by its absence, and over the summer mutterings began to circulate that the idea had been ditched. Heck, this thing called "OneWeb" was up for sale, could the UK not simply snap it up and repurpose it? Er, probably not.
A report (lurking behind the Telegraph's paywall) over the weekend indicated that the BS had indeed been scrapped and sounded a hopeful note that maybe, just maybe, the UK might rejoin the Galileo project.
Such a move would make a great deal of sense; while UK companies remain locked out of bidding for sensitive bits of Galileo (due to being a non-EU country), access to the PRS of the constellation would give Britain's military a bit of resilience and redundancy in addition to GPS.
Such access can be negotiated without a requirement to sign up to the EU.
In a response to a question from the Cabinet Office, Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a lecturer in International Relations and Space Policy at the University of Leicester, pointed out that having a backup made sense should the US GPS system suffer a wobble. He added: "The new US Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Strategy effectively states that GPS is not enough for guaranteeing PNT services to the US military in wartime."
Bowen told The Register: "If the UK can get user access to the PRS service of Galileo, it's good for British security and infrastructural resilience, good for European security, good for NATO, and good for the transatlantic alliance. This is a negotiation waiting to happen."
Earlier today, in response to a question from El Reg, a spokesperson for BEIS, summarised the situation bluntly: "The UK will not participate in the EU's Galileo programme."
The spokesperson also told us that: "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."
So that's that then.
And one's OneWeb?
As for the dream of maybe using OneWeb as a Galileo replacement, the spokesperson told us: "Current OneWeb satellites are used to deliver satellite communications services, not satellite navigation."
We are returning-to-flight 🚀 with @Arianespace & planning our next launch for December. Schedule will put us on track to deliver commercial services to regions including: U.K., Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic seas & Canada.🛰️Read: https://t.co/H5xltaP7Hi pic.twitter.com/BWZaITOeZe— OneWeb (@OneWeb) September 21, 2020
While just over 70 satellites have been launched so far by OneWeb (and the company insists it will return to flight this year), hundreds more are needed to complete it as originally envisioned. Future satellites could potentially be updated to be more useful for navigation purposes, but the technology required (and frequencies involved) would be excessive and costly compared to negotiating for Galileo PRS access. Assuming, of course, one is thinking rationally about such things.
For now, the UK will continue to depend on the US GPS for PNT services. ®
* It probably wouldn't have been called this.