Blighty: If EU won't let us play at Galileo, we're going home and taking encryption tech with us

UK stomps off in a sulk, mumbling something about its own satellite constellation

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

Britain has warned it would attempt to stop the EU using its encryption tech on the Galileo project while launching its own satellites.

The UK is able to block the EU from ordering any more Galileo satellites while it remains a member of the club. Such a move would, however, only result in a short delay and may actually end up causing pain to British businesses still holding contracts to build the things.

For those not in the know, Galileo is Europe's satellite navigation system.

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More significant are reports of Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond's proposed attempt to block the export of encryption technology to the EU. Such a move would be a blow for the Galileo project and cause further delays to the system, which is already late and over budget.

The Financial Times has reported that, if successful, such action could add €1bn to the project's cost.

While Whitehall ponders how to implement Hammond's instructions without breaking UK or EU trade laws, Prime Minister Theresa May gave the go-ahead for work on scoping out a domestic version of the navigation system.

According to Number 10: "The Prime Minister will task engineering and aerospace experts in the UK to develop options for a British Global Navigation Satellite System that would guide missiles and power satnavs."

Plucky Brit boffins will have to figure out a way of getting the system up and running before 2026, which is when Galileo's encrypted signal is scheduled to be operational, possibly without UK involvement.

Assuming the Chancellor can be persuaded to loosen the UK's purse strings and find a few billion lying around, the idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

Galileo's 30 satellites will live in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and recreating the constellation could be prohibitively expensive. However, building a large number of smaller satellites that could be launched cheaply into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is certainly feasible, particularly given the advances in small-sat technology since Galileo was designed.

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US satellite comms firm Iridium, with the aid of Satelles, has demonstrated an alternative to GPS using its 66 satellites. The Satellite Time and Location (STL) system works through Iridium's paging channels, which can get to inexpensive receivers in places GPS cannot always reach.

Unfortunately, the Iridium-based solution as it stands is not particularly accurate location-wise and works better with fixed or slow-moving objects. Accuracy when navigating can have an uncertainty of 20 metres or more.

So while the UK might be able to cover the globe with only a few Falcon 9 launches (using an Arianespace booster would likely cause a sizeable chunk of Parliament to spontaneously combust), there might yet be a few technical hurdles to overcome as well as financial ones.

The Register contacted the UK Space Agency for comment, who confirmed that it will indeed "work quickly to develop options that will provide both civilian and encrypted signals and be compatible with the GPS system". ®

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