The EU ‘Galileo’ satellite navigation system has gone ‘live’, giving Europe its own highly accurate and state-of-the-art replacement for GPS, just as Britain chose to walk away from the project on 31 December 2020 – despite being a major funding and scientific contributor to Galileo since it began in 2003.
The USA originally launched ‘GPS’ over 40 years ago, and it is nearing the end of its technological life. GPS was designed for military use. The technology was, however, later ‘opened’ up to other nations and commercial use in the 1990s. The US Government has always ‘reserved the right’ to deliberately ‘degrade accuracy’ at any time – and it did so during the Gulf War.
Europe does not want to be hostage to GPS successor – leading to it commissioning ‘Galileo’. Under the control of the European Space Agency, Galileo is intended primarily for ‘civilian’ use. The ‘base’ system – accurate to within a metre – is freely available and receivers are already integrated into latest generation of sat-navs and smartphones. The ‘high accuracy system’ – accurate to within a centimetre – was initially to be a chargeable, but an EU decision in 2018 made this, too a free service – although the higher specifications call for specialist and much more expensive receivers.
As a “third country”, UK companies can no longer be involved, as they were until the end of December. Galileo is regarded by the Union as a ‘security program’ – and only firms from the 27 member states can take on ‘sensitive’ work – such as payload integration.
The last Galileo payloads produced by a British company – Guildford-based SSTL – left its Surrey factory at the end of November. They were taken to ESA’s technical centre in the Netherlands – where ‘security elements’ may not be handled by British workers – for installation.
These payloads are the “brains” of the spacecraft and generate the signals the Galileo network sends down to Earth.
ESA Navigation Director, Paul Verhoef, speaking on the BBC: “There may be small exceptions for certain components that come out of the UK which we can’t get anywhere else. But this is what it is. This is the political reality of the day.”
Having given notice to the EU in 2018 that UK cooperation would end with Brexit, the Government announced an 18-month programme led by the ‘UK Space Agency’ to develop a UK version of a “conventional Global Navigation Satellite System”. The stated aim is: “to meet UK security requirements and support the UK’s sovereign space and cryptography sectors.” The UK GNSS Programme was, however, closed down on 30 September 2020.
Work completed before the closure had, according to Government press statement: “developed cutting edge British expertise in areas such as spacecraft and antenna design, satellite and ground control systems, systems engineering and simulation, which have wider applications across the space sector – in addition to supporting specialist UK jobs and industrial GNSS capability.”
If British citizens, business and military are to migrate from the aging GPS system, the UK Government must rapidly find another – possibly ‘home-grown’ – alternative now we are no longer party to the “ultra-precise Positioning, Navigation and Timing services offered by Galileo”. Options include, according to Business Secretary, Alok Sharma MP: “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.”
British companies previously involved in Galileo are now left ‘hoping’ that a concrete proposal comes forward soon. Otherwise, the nation will lose all of the knowledge, expertise and skills built up over two decades.
Galileo capabilities at time of UK leaving the program on 31 December 2020
- Technology: GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System);
- Satellites in-orbit: 30 ‘spacecraft’ of which 24 are fully ‘in service’ – and 6 are ‘spares’;
- Orbit: 23,222 km;
- Satellite lifetime: 12 years;
- Satellite mass: 675 kg;
- Satellite body dimensions: 2.7 × 1.2 × 1.1 metre;
- Span of solar arrays: 18.7 metre;
- Power of solar arrays: 1.5 kW (end of life)
Meanwhile, The UK and EU have ‘agreed in principle’ to continue cooperating on the EU’s other big space project – ‘Copernicus’. This operates a constellation of “Sentinel” orbital satellites that monitor the Globe – mapping everything from the damage caused by earthquakes to tracing air pollution.
The UK will be expected to contribute around £100m pa over seven years giving it access to Copernicus services – and allowing UK companies to ‘bid’ for industrial work.
An ESA press release welcomes potential UK participation from both a technological and funding perspective. The program presently has a €2bn gap if it is to fulfil all its objectives by 2027 – which include launching six new satellite systems.
Norway and Switzerland may also join Copernicus with “third country” status.
Photo: SSTL Guildford