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OneWeb satellite artist impression

UK bids for stake in collapsed satellite operator OneWeb

Image credit: OneWeb

According to reports, the UK government has agreed to put hundreds of millions of pounds towards the purchase of a stake in satellite operator OneWeb, after being shut out from the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation project.

The purchase of a UK-owned satellite navigation system could provide valuable high-precision information for defence and national infrastructure purposes, as well as location services for consumers and businesses.

The UK was previously involved in the EU’s €10bn Galileo project, which sought to establish a satellite navigation system which would allow European countries independence from foreign systems such as GPS (US) or Glonass (Russia). The UK’s Brexit withdrawal from the EU has largely shut the UK out of the project, leaving the UK government having to seek alternatives.

The UK government has been considering a fully homegrown alternative to Galileo – which was expected be built from scratch at a cost of £3-5bn – although recent reports suggest that the project may be scrapped.

Now, The Times has reported that the government may have chosen to pursue a different option, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak agreeing to purchase a 20 per cent stake in satellite operator OneWeb. The Financial Times reports that this will cost approximately £500m of public money, as part of a larger private sector consortium bid.

Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings is reported to have been “instrumental” in pushing for the bid.

Following this route could allow the UK government to acquire its own satellite system for considerably less than it would cost to create from scratch, although some design changes will be necessary.

OneWeb – which has headquarters in London and McLean, Virginia – launched 74 of 648 planned satellites into low-Earth orbit between February 2019 and March 2020. The company filed for bankruptcy in the US in March, having failed to secure the necessary funding to continue launching its planned constellation. It said that it would maintain existing satellite operations while new owners are sought.

As part of any deal, the government would expect the manufacture of hundreds of future satellites to be brought to the UK.

The bidding process for OneWeb’s assets is being overseen by a US bankruptcy court, while OneWeb investors including SoftBank and Airbus will make the final decision on whether to accept the UK government’s bid.

A Number 10 spokesperson said that the UK continues to develop its sovereign space programme through the national space strategy: “Work on that is continuing on multiple fronts. This includes developing plans for our own national capabilities in satellite navigation, positioning and timing. We continue to work and have regular conversations with the space industry about this.”

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