Satellite technology and a wayward compass

25th Aug 2020
Alok Sharma

Despite its very large footprint in the aerospace industry, the United Kingdom has historically under-performed in certain areas, especially when it comes to space. Missed opportunities, shifting strategies and the occasional odd decision could support an argument for separating “aero” from “space” when it comes to the British aerospace industry. Now, in contrast to the firm moves being made to create the regulations and infrastructure needed to put the UK firmly on the map for commercial space launch, a scandal is brewing over the decision by the Business Secretary Alok Sharma, with an agreement from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, to go ahead with the £400m purchase of a 40% share of the OneWeb company, against the advice of his own experts.

Rishi Sunak
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak

The OneWeb incident makes revisiting these issues worth while, especially in light of the government of the United Kingdom’s decisions to a) condemn Russia’s use of weapons in space, but b) to not thoroughly investigate Russia’s use of what could politely be called “political technologies” in an attempt to influence the recent UK election.

The UK’s technical prowess should not be underestimated. However, the “what ifs” and “why thats” of the decision-making processes surrounding the technical issues cry out for attention.

So, what is the current state of the British government’s policy regarding the “space” in “aerospace”?

Supporters of the OneWeb purchase might claim that the government should be able to exploit opportunities as they arise, but the lack of transparency behind the scandal brewing over Sharma’s unilaterally agreeing for the UK to take on a £400m obligation, especially in the face of concerns expressed by the ministry’s own experts, underscores the wayward swings of the country’s space industry’s compass.

Moreover, from project purpose to satellite design to launch partnerships, the British government has done little to convince the public that the OneWeb purchase has been seen within the overall direction and future of British space operations. This is not new, British space efforts have been littered with projects whose lives were decided by economics instead of aerospace needs.

Dead ends and money sunk

Historically, Britain has had well-deserved success in sounding rockets, which cannot put a satellite into orbit. Even that success was short-changed by the government, in that the rocket it developed in the 1950s – the Skylark – was sold off to commercial companies in 1977 as the government thought that small satellite launches would become the realm of the Space Shuttle, though it remained a staple of upper-atmosphere research and was used worldwide until 2005. However, success in sounding rockets did not translate into heavier or orbit-capable launching systems, with only one satellite successfully launched by a British effort, and that was with a Black Arrow in 1971. Despite the effort, the Ministry of Defense claimed that the program would be ended on economic grounds, as American launches would be cheaper.

The United Kingdom has not been not alone in carefully weighing the pros and cons of a space program, and pooling resources was a major impetus behind the UK being a founding member of the European Space Research Organisation, which became the European Space Agency in 1975. As an integral part of the agency, the UK has been involved in some of space science’s biggest projects, such as the Ariane heavy launch vehicle and Magellan, the EU’s system for determining position with its unique rescue communications capacity. It is in part the UK’s departure from this latter project that has prompted the Johnson government to gamble £400m on OneWeb, and both the issue as a whole and one of its components bear scrutiny.

Unclear positions

The impetus for the ESA to invest into a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) has its roots in the feature that the US once had on its GPS system to degrade the accuracy of the readings some users obtained. While this feature, called Selective Availability, has since been removed from the GPS system, Europe’s concerns have not been allayed given subsequent issues such as Russian interference with the system in the form of location spoofing and jamming in Ukraine, the Baltic Sea, and far Northern Europe. Likewise, the military orientation of GPS, Russia’s GLONASS system, and China’s BeiDou positioning system left much to be desired for commercial purposes. The ESA’s response was the development of the Galileo GNSS.

Galileo Project
Galileo GNSS Project

Though France, Germany, and Italy were the EU’s prime movers when it came to Galileo, all 27 EU member states vote to support the Galileo project, and the UK was no exception. Total UK funding for Galileo through Brexit was £1.8bn. Brexit put an end to Britain’s contributions, and PM Boris Johnson claimed at the time that Britain was looking into ways to get their £1.8bn back. Though the attempt failed, a very real effect of Brexit is the end of the UK’s involvement with Galileo development , and with that, an end to the use of the system’s Public Regulated Service feature available to governments. Another outcome, though is that the same concerns that drove the ESA to engage in the Galileo project led the Johnson government to begin to publicly discuss a British effort to have its own system.

 Britain’s concerns mirrored the ESA countries and their neighbors who have signed in on the project, and the problems faced are likewise similar. A GNSS on the order of Galileo is very expensive, at an estimated £5bn. At first glance, then, the £400m paid for a 45% share in OneWeb, with (relatively) inexpensive satellites already in serial production might seem to be a good deal.

However, the expert community is split regarding the purchase, and as of yet, there is no clear indication regarding the Government’s plans for the future. OneWeb’s mission was to bring the Internet to those who do not have access by terrestrial means. Repurposing the satellite for GNSS use is not a sure thing – experts are already stating that the satellite designed by OneWeb is not useful for GNSS operation. Issues include OneWeb’s satellite orbit, which is significantly lower than than global positioning rivals, thus making it more open to attack and, at the same time, giving the satellite a smaller coverage footprint – more satellites will be needed to sufficiently cover a given area.

Besides operational deficiencies and concerns over ease of disruption, which raise the security risk of the project, questions are being raised regarding the economic benefit that the £400m has gained the UK. Currently, OneWeb is based in West London in the UK and the US state of Virginia, and its partnership with Airbus has not generated a significant footprint in the UK.

While the possible benefit to the UK aerospace sector is touted by proponents, nothing specific has been stated to show that new jobs would be created in Britain. Moreover, the Government’s own business experts warning against the risk involved with this endeavour is only part of the uncertainty raised by the move. With a new space policy document expected soon, observers are hoping that the purchase does not signal a shift in emphasis by the government.

A cast of colorful characters

There are other aerospace projects in the United Kingdom that give pause, such as the Shetland Space Centre, whose  announcement of £2m in funding in February of this year was uncovered by Scottish journalists in April as an equity swap with a contract value of £5 and that the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) had issued a warning about the investor, Leonne International, which claimed to be a “Cayman Island-based fund” but, the FCA claimed, had no legal right to operate within the UK.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit  successfully launched a rocket from its modified Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl on 25 May 2020. Though the rocket exploded shortly thereafter due to a fuel line rupture, the launch is an important milestone for the UK as well, especially as Virgin Orbit is moving ahead with building Spaceport Cornwall while the UK Space Agency finalizes the regulations required for commercial space launches. In terms of the OneWeb deal, this could be important, too, as OneWeb had a contract with Virgin Orbit for four launches at a date to be determined. However, the government has not made any connection with a future UK-based launch capacity from Virgin Global or any other project.

The number of OneWeb launches via Virgin Orbit shrank from 39 to four in 2018 and those four being labeled as ‘replenishment missions’ on Wikipedia, though the time frame now slips due to the bankruptcy and halt in production.

And the ultimate beneficiary is…

OneWeb’s first launches did leave from from French Guiana on Russian-made Soyuz 2 rockets, but, according to Spacenews.com, most subsequent launches will be departing from Baikanour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Johnson government’s saving OneWeb brings little uncontroversial benefit to the UK, but certainly helps the ailing Russian rocket industry, which has been hurting with the development of commercial space projects. Against the background of the same government’s lackluster investigation into Russian meddling in UK elections, questions regarding the true beneficiary of the £400m to be spent on OneWeb are arising already.

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