UK space tech must reach for the stars when it comes to creating its own satellite system, our experts are saying. The country is in pole position to win the satellite space race but the Government must be bold and grab the opportunity.
Satellite navigation is becoming vital for military, commercial and civilian uses. But most of the world still relies on US satellites. Britain’s scientists had put years of work into the EU plan, which has also cost the UK £1.2billion. But Brexit saw Brussels announce we would no longer be welcome participants.
While this was initially seen as a blow to our space ambitions, it prompted Theresa May to say: “I cannot let our Armed Services depend on a system we cannot be sure of. That would not be in our national interest.
“And as a global player with world-class engineers and steadfast allies around the world we are not short of options.”
The statement was a “game changer”, defence sources said.”Suddenly, it wasn’t a case of if, but when – and how.”A new system, developed by the UK Space Agency with Ministry of Defence involvement has yet to be named. It will concentrate on military uses and the protection of national infrastructure. Other developments will see a spaceport built in Scotland in just two years’ time, capable of launching satellite-carrying rockets.
UK Space tech
Last night sources said the UK had the know-how to create “a very significant system”. A number of options have been presented to the Government and talks between industry leaders and Whitehall have been underway for more than a year. While in the short term the Government may be attracted to a mere Galileo replacement, insiders say there are those in the MoD who see the advantages of a more sophisticated system. One is to design and build five geostationary satellites of our own, which essentially stay “fixed” above the Earth and provide continuous coverage over an area. The £10billion cost, however, would be daunting.
The solution suggested is to collaborate with the US or with our Five Eyes intelligence allies – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US – which would bring access to their telecommunications and GPS satellites too.
The idea would sit well with the US, which is currently upgrading its GPS system. Another proposal is that Britain reaches even higher and develops a line of geostationary satellites with GPS-type capabilities. Both GPS and Galileo rely on Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites, which float up to 1,300 miles above the Earth’s surface. Geostationary satellites can be as large as a minibus and are 26,000 miles above the Earth. But covering both is costly, even for the US.
UK Space satellites
The source said: “To 2040 neither the UK nor the US can afford to develop both enhanced MEO and GEO satellites – it’s a question of picking and choosing, unless we collaborate. “The MEO layer is already crowded. The idea, which has been presented to the Government, would see Britain build the entire geostationary layer – a capability the US is very interested in.
“This would gain us access to the GPS system and allow us to piggyback on its MEO satellites. Adopting a mixed system would give the UK several advantages. GEO satellites emit so much power they can “punch through” most jamming systems, meaning British and US troops would not be left in the dark should an enemy block signals in a conflict. It also means the UK would have the ultimate safety net.
“If the US were ever to block us from GPS, GEO satellites would still allow us 80 percent global coverage,” added the source. Such a system would create world-leading know-how which could be exported – even if the systems themselves were too expensive for most countries. Another idea is to supplement British GEO satellites with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) ones. British scientists involved in Galileo have suggested this path.
“We spent a lot of time and money developing Galileo,” said Craig Clark, founder of Glasgow-based Clyde Space.
“The UK space tech has a fantastic capability in space. Payloads were built in the UK and we at Clyde Space have been building them for years.”
Started in 2005, the firm also specialises in satellites and believes cheaper LEOs can have a key role. Mr Clark said: “We see a mixed system which would include GEO satellites and LEOs. “LEOs are much cheaper and as they’re closer to Earth it makes upgrading them every five years possible, so they would carry the latest tech.”
Mr Clark about Galileo
Though the UK Space tech would require hundreds of satellites because of the speed at which they orbit, the lower cost would allow this. Another advantage would be that more firms could get involved. “LEOs are the fastest growing sector in the market,” said Mr Clark. “Whenever you look at satellite imagery on your phone, it’s LEO. They track ships and planes we supply the US with LEOs to monitor the ocean. “Exporting them would mean they pay for themselves.” To date, more than 50 firms have tendered for a share of a £92million research grant.
Mr Clark said it is time to think beyond a like-for-like replacement for Galileo. He said: “There is a real opportunity for post-Brexit Britain to design a mixed orbit, world-class system. We just need to seize it.”
An MoD spokesman said: “The UK space tech system would provide both open and encrypted signals, and be compatible with the US GPS system, providing resilient satellite navigation information. “We are committed to working closely with our UK Space tech Agency colleagues on this capability.”
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