UK getting ready to go it alone on Galileo

Millions to be spent on a feasibility study to see if Brits can do their own thing in space

Burning a £20 note. Pic: Shutterstock

The UK is about to press the big red button on its own satellite navigation system as an agreement for access to the EU’s Galileo programme looks more and more unlikely.

Following hot on the heels of the release of papers detailing the customs and tax implications of a no-deal Brexit come reports that the UK Treasury has greenlit the spanking of at least £92m on a feasibility study into launching the UK’s own version of Galileo.

In the statement, the UK government said disruption to satellite navigation could cost the UK economy £1bn a day, while conveniently forgetting that consumer navigation signals aren’t affected by the Galileo row.

The study money will come from the £3bn Brexit readiness fund the Chancellor found down the back of the sofa in last year’s Budget, and the study itself is to be lead by the UK Space Agency and last for 18 months. The Ministry of Defence, who’s toys were ejected from the pram regarding Galileo, will obviously have an input.

Galileo itself is a constellation of satellites, partly built in Blighty, that are being launched to give the EU its own navigation platform, independent of the likes of the US’s GPS system. The argument is centred around the access the UK military needs to Galileo’s encryption technology. Since the UK will no longer be a member state following Brexit, it cannot have that access.

The UK Government has found it difficult to understand that if one stops being a member of a club, one loses access to that club’s facilities. If the opposite were the case, then this Register hack for one would save a fortune on gym membership.

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During one of the many, many parliamentary committee hearings over the issue, Airbus (who is already shifting work to France and Germany in order to qualify for the next round of Galileo contracts) reckoned it would take around five years and cost the best part of £5bn. The figure was re-iterated by UK Minister Guto Bebb during a hearing in June where he put the number “between £3bn and £5bn” on top of the current UK defence budget.

The removal of the UK from the Galileo programme will certainly delay things for the EU, and the UK continues to hold out hope that it may be able to claw back some of the huge investment it has made in the constellation. A negotiated deal may also be possible, but with time running short and both sides showing no sign of backing down, this is increasingly unlikely.

Business Secretary Greg Clark said in the statement:

“Our position on Galileo has been consistent and clear. We have repeatedly highlighted the specialist expertise we bring to the project and the risks in time delays and cost increases that the European Commission is taking by excluding UK industry.”

In the meantime, Arianespace launched another four Galileo satellites last month, bringing the total in orbit to 26 (although two are currently unavailable.) Two more launches should see the constellation completed, with work on the next generation of spacecraft kicked off. The UK will be blocked from bidding on that work, but that’ll be ok since Blighty’s own birds will be on the production line by then. Right?

Should the UK go ahead with its own constellation, The Register fervently hopes that that the great British public is once again given a say in the naming. Satnav McSatnavface, anyone? ®




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