We didn’t think our embarrassment at the current government could get any worse, but 2020 has struck again with the news that the UK is spending a tonne of money on satellites that may well not do what we need them for.
In short, thanks to Brexit we’re losing access to the EU’s excellent Galileo GPS system, which we helped to design. Instead, we’re investing hundreds of millions in a UK company (because WE DON’T NEED NO ONE ELSE, etc.) called OneWeb, which doesn’t currently offer navigation at all.
Like the other global positioning systems, Galileo uses satellites in a mid-Earth orbit, about 12,000 miles above the planet. OneWeb’s satellites are only about 750 miles up, known as low Earth orbit. The other navigation systems in use around the world – namely GPS in the US, Glonass in Russia and BeiDou in China – all use satellites in mid-Earth orbits.
Thanks to the £500m investment reported by the Guardian, the UK will own 20 per cent of OneWeb, which currently uses its 74 active satellites to connect people on Earth to the internet.
Dr Bleddyn Bowen, space policy expert at the University of Leicester, explains the fustercluck succinctly: “Yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites.”
He goes on to explain how this came to be:
“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.
If you want to replace GPS for military-grade systems, where you need encrypted, secure signals that are precise to centimetres, I’m not sure you can do that on satellites as small as OneWeb’s.”
Other experts are no less scathing: Jeffries research analyst Giles Thorne describes the situation as “nonsensical,” a case of “nationalism trumping solid industrial policy.”
Thorne thinks the company was chosen not for its suitability, but for the optics of picking a UK company:
“If the output the government wants is a UK-branded positioning system, a projection of UK power around the world and supporting the UK satellite industry base, then it is probably quicker and cheaper to smash the square peg of OneWeb into the round hole of a Galileo replacement than it is to do it from scratch.”
While OneWeb does have a UK base and Ofcom-registered rights to use communications spectrums here, it mainly operates out of the US – where it went bankrupt in March. Cool.
On the bright side, this whole shitshow will cost less than the original bananas plan, which was to build our own positioning system of a cost of around, oh, just between three and five billion pounds. That plan was allegedly squashed by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, otherwise known as the bloke who’s just resigned.
It’s all going swimmingly, then. [The Guardian]
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