Galileo, here we go again. My my, the Brits are gonna miss EU

Britain launching its own sat looks more and more likely

The House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology yesterday hauled UK government bigwigs in to explain themselves in light of the latest round of Galileo handbag-swinging.

However, anyone hoping to see Minister for Defence Procurement Guto Bebb, Head of Cyber and Space Policy Nick Ayling, or UK Space Agency Director Rebecca Evernden being given a grilling were in for a disappointment.

A light bit of tickling seemed to be the order of the day as the committee asked familiar questions and were given familiar answers. But amid the "stop being horrid" protestations were some nuggets of new information.

Bebb reiterated that the government was very disappointed that the UK would indeed be a third country in the glorious post-Brexit future. Evernden took on the role of handwringer-in-chief, explaining that the UK had expected to land about a quarter of the next round of juicy Galileo contracts, but following the Brexit referendum that figure had at least halved. Direct job losses would be measured in the hundreds.

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This is, of course, due to the fact that the UK will not be permitted to take part in, and certainly not bid on, anything to do with the sensitive security and encryption components used in Europe's Galileo satellite navigation constellation.

Bebb huffed and puffed, trotting out the line that this exclusion cast doubt on future co-operation in intelligence matters if the EU was going to consider the UK a security risk.

The EU has made it clear that the UK will have access to the open signals, meaning that commercial users will not be affected, and as a third country, the UK should be able to use the encrypted Public Regulated Service (PRS) signal. The US has spent the last few years negotiating similar access.

However, Ayling was swift to point out that the military also needed to understand how the signal worked in order to be assured it was functioning correctly. After all, "guided ordnance" (aka missiles) would need to find a target.

As the usual concerns were raised about companies such as Airbus shunting work into the EU in order to bid on or complete contracts due to finish after the UK's exit date in March next year, the very real concern of an impending skills drain was raised.

While the government remained optimistic that Britain's space sector will find a way to plug any Galileo gap, the prospect of a UK-only version of Galileo was once again raised.

Boy with a backpack hides his eyes and cries. Pic by Shutterstock

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Bebb threw out a figure of between £3bn and £5bn for such a system, which would be on top of the £20bn the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, is said to have demanded from Prime Minister Theresa May. On the latter figure, Bebb smiled wryly and suggested the committee not believe everything they read in the papers.

Though work on a UK version of Galileo would be unlikely to start until more detailed costings had been hashed out, the panel was sure that the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) system would be at least as good as its EU sibling, and likely take advantage of improvements in technology.

Furthermore, the delay in Galileo caused by UK withdrawal could result in the UK's version being operational at roughly the same time – mid-2020s, according to Bebb.

Coming to an agreement with the EU is clearly the preferred route, but optimistic costs coupled with an even more optimistic timeline may yet see UK Space launching its very own constellation. ®




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