Concept art of a Galileo satellite

UK government ponders homegrown satellite alternative to EU’s Galileo project

Image credit: Pierre Carril/ESA/PA Wire

With the possibility that British companies could be frozen out of the Galileo satellite navigation project – which is run by the EU through the European Space Agency (ESA) – the UK government is reportedly considering an alternative project to be based in Great Britain.

Galileo is a global navigation satellite system in the process of development and launch by the EU. The €10bn project will provide a free global positioning system with precision to within one metre, offering an independent alternative to the USA’s GPS system, Russia’s GLONASS system and China’s BeiDou system. Galileo could be used for civilian, government and military use.

Already, more than 20 of the planned 30 satellites have been launched into orbit and the system is on track to be completed by 2020.

The EU had previously offered a contract to CGI UK - which has worked with ESA for decades - to work in France and develop a cryptographic system to protect Galileo’s Public Regulated Service: secure information transfer for government users. However, current rules state that this service can only be accessed by EU member states. Brussels officials have been discussing a ban on British companies being involved with these sensitive elements of the Galileo project.

In response, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is reportedly attempting to “sabotage” the Galileo project by blocking tech transfer between the UK and other European countries involved with the project. According to the Financial Times, his suggestion was brought up during a cabinet meeting last week.

“We could not draw up a legal contract saying they could not do the work in France or for the EU – it would have to be a gentleman’s agreement,” an official speaking to the Financial Times said. “It is up to CGI what contract they take. But there are discussions about whether there is any other work we could do in the UK to retain that expertise.”

Last week, Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, warned Elzbieta Bienkowska, the EU Commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs, that blocking out British expertise could cause three years of delay to the project.

While the EU has confirmed that the UK will still be able to use Galileo’s open signal following its departure from the bloc, the government is reportedly considering the development of a British alternative to Galileo if Brussels prevents further UK involvement with Galileo.

Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the UK Space Agency to investigate options for a “British Global Navigation Satellite System” which could be designed, built and operated with the cooperation of British industry and launched by the mid-2020s.

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