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When OneWeb was launched in 2012 the London-based satellite firm had an ambitious mission: to provide internet services to remote and rural locations across the world. The company managed to launch 74 of its planned 648 satellites before going bankrupt in March 2020 – an early victim of the coronavirus crisis.
But by October, a US bankruptcy court approved the sale of OneWeb to an unlikely buyer: the British government. Once a competitor to Elon Musk and SpaceX’s plan for internet-providing satellite constellations, OneWeb had become the centre of Brexit Britain’s new space ambitions.
That’s if the UK government can figure out what to do with it. Initially, the $500 million (£385m) investment, shared with Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global, was thought to be another step toward Britain building a home-grown alternative to Galileo, the European Union’s global satellite system the country had recently rejected. There was a snag, however – OneWeb operated tiny satellites, measuring roughly one metre by one metre, that spun in constellations just 1,200 kilometres from Earth. The satellites used by major positioning systems – GPS, Russia’s Glonass and Galileo – are all larger and orbit at altitudes of 20,000km. The UK, it seemed, had bought the wrong satellites.
After a storm of criticism, business secretary Alok Sharma responded that the investment – which had been on the cards since the summer – was “geopolitical”, and had nothing to do with building a rival system. “Acquiring OneWeb may have been to try to make sure that this constellation is not either bought by Amazon, for instance, or served to the Chinese on a silver platter, massively increasing their internet capabilities,” explains Serge Plattard, deputy director of Space Domain at University College London.
Whatever the reason, it seems the government wants to make space a priority – prime minister Boris Johnson promised a comprehensive UK space strategy in his 2019 Queen’s Speech and this year it increased the space agency’s budget by ten per cent to £556m. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say positive noises, but they’ve made lots of noises about space,” says Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in space policy at the University of Leicester. “The UK government likes space as a policy – not a lot of noise has been made about it in the past.”
The new burst of space enthusiasm might have something to do with the UK leaving the EU. The UK’s space industry has trebled in size since 2000, but during this period it has had close ties with the European Space Agency and Europe-wide initiatives such as Galileo, the global navigation satellite system that went live in 2016.
The UK had spent £1.4 billion helping to build Galileo, intended for use in everything from smartphones to financial transactions accurate to a billionth of a second. These aspects of the system, however, weren’t part of the post-Brexit dispute – we weren’t about to lose our Google Maps access. The disagreement hinged on a very particular aspect of Galileo’s capabilities, a more accurate and secure signal called Public Regulated Service, reserved for use by military and emergency services – it could be used to communicate coordinates to a warship, for instance, or guide a bomb to its target.
Though PRS doesn’t yet exist, it was expected to be operational sometime this year. Yet, in the wake of Brexit, the EU cut the UK out of the signal’s continued development, arguing that this access should be reserved for EU members. Theresa May, then prime minister, deemed this unacceptable and withdrew from Galileo altogether.
In its place, she promised that the country would build its own, home-grown system. The government ring-fenced £92m from the Brexit “readiness fund” to explore the feasibility of alternatives; later that year, the Common’s Exiting the European Union Committee was told that the estimated cost of building a sovereign system would be between £3bn and £5bn, and would take up to five years.
In March 2020 the Financial Times reported that the publication of the feasibility study had been delayed by six months, due to disagreements over the cost and scope of the project. And in September, the Conservatives quietly scrapped the entire scheme, with one Tory minister labelling it a “vanity project”, and another querying how the £92m was spent. “We’re in a fairly uncertain state, as far as the future of the UK space industry is concerned,” says Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law. “Our largest space industry, in terms of manufacturing, is Airbus, which is, in the final analysis, a French company. A lot of things are very likely to change as we leave the EU completely.”
Most likely, the project was scrapped for a simple reason – the £5bn cost was astronomical. “I’ve been against it just because of the sheer cost involved, and the fact that it won’t add anything to the British military or economy other than keeping a particular part of the UK space industry going,” says Bowen. “The UK space industry is bigger, and there are many other sectors of the economy that are going to suffer as a result of Brexit.”
Even though OneWeb’s purchase turned out to be unrelated to Galileo, it represented another example of the UK’s government investment in “New Space” – the modern phenomenon of private actors, like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, muscling into a sector that was previously the domain of nation states.
Though the industry was moving this way regardless of Brexit, leaving the EU has renewed the government’s focus on privatising space, says Mosteshar. A host of new spaceport projects have popped up across Britain, including a £22m spaceport at Newquay airport, and a £17m launch site in Sutherland, on the north coast of Scotland. Despite building more small satellites than any other country in the world, UK developers currently send their satellites to the US, Russia or India for launch, at huge expense. UK spaceports could cut out the middle man.
While the projects will likely bring hundreds of jobs, it’s not clear that Britain is suited to these types of launch sites. The UK has only ever built one satellite bearing rocket, back in 1971, during the Black Arrow project, and that was scrapped soon after that launch. “Sweden is somewhat ahead of us in establishing spaceport and small satellite launches,” says Mosteshar. “India is launching a great deal and has done for some time. There’s Japan, too – these are well established launch systems or services. It’s not absolutely clear we will be a large part of the international space sector.”
A move into spaceports may not even be a particularly profitable venture. “There seems to be a conviction that there’s going to be this huge economic boost that’s gonna come from space,” says Mosteshar. “The space industry in this country is tiny. That’s not to say that it’s not important, but it’s not going to be a strong economic driver.”
And another possible disaster is lurking just around the corner. A no-deal Brexit would likely limit the movement of highly-skilled workers and hold up the movement of technology between the UK and the EU. “Whilst the UK space, military and intelligence base is highly integrated with the United States, on the commercial industry and science front, it’s very much part of the larger European space story,” says Bowen.
Key to Britain’s future will be the development of a clear, coherent space strategy, as Johnson promised. Space cuts across many departments, from agriculture to transport and from military to foreign policy. Earlier this year, the trade body UKSpace argued that as the UK emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, it needs to develop “a coherent cross-government national space strategy”. Bowen agrees – to an extent. “Every sector is touched by space services,” he says. “You can’t have a one size fits all space policy, but you do need to joined-up thinking all the same.”
This has yet to be realised, though the government has promised to create a National Space Council, led by chancellor Rishi Sunak, to join up these concerns. (A ‘national space tsar’, who would lead the UK’s space policy, has also been mooted). A government spokesperson says the UK space sector is primed to “unleash a wave of further innovation across the country”.
Meanwhile, the UK continues to explore possible alternatives to Galileo. In September, it announced the Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme. It will try to come up with new ways to deliver the secure satellite services the UK has lost. “We’ll see where that goes,” says Bowen. “It’s a question worth asking. We just don’t know where OneWeb is going to fit into that.”
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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