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UK U-turns on OneWeb for sat nav

September 28, 2020

By Chris Forrester

The UK government is rethinking its commitment to an independent satellite navigation system. The review could mean that UK will not use OneWeb for its independent satellite navigation system.

The UK’s access to the European Space Agency’s Galileo system ends on December 31st with the UK’s exit from the European Union. The British government has said for some years that it wanted an independent satellite navigation system.

It is committed to spending £400 million as its part of the rescue of OneWeb (along with Bharti Global, and others) but it seems that wiser heads have informed the government that OneWeb would not immediately suit the UK’s needs, at least not without considerable design modifications to OneWeb’s fleet of satellites. Simply fitting at least a pair of Atomic Clocks to each satellite would cost millions. And the space-qualified Atomic Clocks are simply not readily available. The cost of fitting one Atomic Clock to the Galileo system was put at €2.2 million.

Atomic Clocks are just one costly aspect. The OneWeb satellites orbit at about 1200 kms. The existing Galileo fleet orbits at 23,222 kms, and thus have a typical lifespan in orbit of some 12 years (and there are 24 in full orbital service. The OneWeb fleet will comprise an initial 650 satellites but each has a design life of only about 5 years. In other words, that’s a lot of Atomic Clocks to be funded as well as extensive redesign in order for them to have a role as GPS-type satellites.

A statement on September 24th from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said that it is still studying its options, and in a statement said a new Space-based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme (SBPP) is to “consider newer, more innovative ideas of delivering global ‘sat nav’ and secure satellite services to meet public, government and industry needs.”

“Through our Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme, we will draw on the strengths of the UK’s already thriving space industry to understand our requirements for a robust and secure satellite navigation system,” Business Secretary Alok Sharma said in his statement. “This includes considering low orbiting satellites that could deliver considerable benefits to people and businesses right across the UK, while potentially reducing our dependency on foreign satellite systems.”

The statement added that the SBPP could support transport systems, energy networks, mobile communications and national security and defence, while boosting the UK’s space industry.

Sharma added: “Satellites underpin so many of the services that we all use every single day, from precise train timetables on our phones and satnavs in our cars.”

BEIS said that a Cabinet Office Study examining the need for a UK space based system for secure positioning, navigation and timing concluded that any solution would need to examine more options and further work is needed to determine what form a potential system takes so it provides value for money.

This fresh study seems to be additional – or a reset – to that began in 2018 with the UK Space Agency being tasked to find an alternate solution to Europe’s Galileo or the USA’s GPS systems.

“Our work to date has developed cutting-edge UK expertise in satellite navigation spacecraft, antenna design and control systems, while supporting high-skilled jobs,” Graham Turnock, CEO UK Space Agency said. “Now is the time to drive this work further to look into wider, more innovative ways of delivering this important national capability — to help protect our critical infrastructure and put the UK at the forefront of the development of new space technologies.”

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