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Has the UK Government bought the wrong satellites?

June 29, 2020 11:02 AM
By Peter Black

udwa (Thanks to Eugenio Pastoral for sharing their work on Unsplash.)I recently blogged about the inability of government to cope with ICT and new technology contracts and the huge waste of public money that ensues. I suggested that some of the reasons for this may be that Ministers and civil servants don't fully understand what they are being sold, and have unrealistic expectations of it.

I added that the industry does not seek to dissuade them of their ambitions for the product on offer, but ensure that contracts are so complex that the penalties for failing to meet targets and deliver the goods can never be implemented. As a result projects overrun and he cost soars until somebody pulls the plug.

A comment to that post very helpfully suggested that another reason might be the marginal propensity to tinker. A spec is sorted and then someone (like a Minister) says 'Wouldn't it be a good idea if...' which then both sets the whole thing a fair time and adds to the cost.

There are times when these failures cause considerable delay, expense and embarrassment, on other occasions it is more serious. The ideological decision to opt out of the EU's Galileo system because of Brexit, an £8bn satellite navigation system intended to rival the US-controlled Global Positioning System and to replace it with an off-the-shelf alternative is a prime example of the latter.

Once fully operational this year, Galileo will provide accurate position, navigation and timing information for governments, citizens and industry. It will be used by everything from smartphones to security-critical military applications in target acquisition and tracking. The UK is developing receivers for military platforms that will incorporate Galileo's encrypted Public Regulated Service.

If we do not have it, or its equivalent then huge chunks of modern life start to fall apart, whilst the effective defence of the realm and the maintenance of law and order will be compromised.

Unfortunately, the government's option of investing hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company as their preferred alternative has been described by experts as "nonsensical". According to the Guardian, they believe that OneWeb - in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment - currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems:

"The fundamental starting point is, yes, we've bought the wrong satellites," said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. "OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk's Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

"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."

Giles Thorne, a research analyst at Jeffries, agreed. "This situation is nonsensical to me," he said. "This situation looks like nationalism trumping solid industrial policy."

Every major positioning system currently in use - America's GPS, Russia's Glonass, China's BeiDou, and Galileo, the EU project that the UK helped design before losing access to due to Brexit - is in a medium Earth orbit, Thorne said, approximately 20,000km from Earth. OneWeb's satellites, 74 of which have already been launched, are in a low Earth orbit, just 1,200km up.

Bowen said: "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."

Rather than being selected for the quality of the offering, Thorne suggested the investment was made to suit "a nationalist agenda". OneWeb is nominally a UK business, with a UK HQ and spectrum rights registered in the UK through Ofcom.

Yet another fine mess Boris Johnson and his minions have got us into.