OneWeb satellite artist impression

UK buys stake in bankrupt satellite company OneWeb

Image credit: OneWeb

The UK Government has bought a stake in failed satellite firm OneWeb as a means to expand its space industry, following its withdrawal from the EU and its Galileo project.

Purchased in consortium with India’s Bharti Global, the company was originally trying to provide satellite internet worldwide with aconstellation of up to 648 satellites. However, the firm only managed to launch 74 of its low-Earth orbit satellites before going bust in March as it failed to secure funding to continue the project.

Ministers hope the purchase could revitalise the UK’s space sector which was dealt a major blow in 2018 when it was forced to leave the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation project.

Since then consideration has been given to building a home-grown alternative to Galileo and other satellite navigation systems, before that too was reported to have been cancelled earlier this year.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the UK and mobile operator Bharti are each investing $500m (£400m), with Britain acquiring a “significant equity stake” in the company. Reuters reports that each will hold a 45 per cent stake, and Bharti will provide commercial and operational leadership.

The deal will enable the company to complete its satellite constellation, which will provide enhanced broadband and other services to countries around the world. It is subject to US court approval and regulatory clearances but is expected to close before the end of the year.

It follows the formation of the UK’s first-ever National Space Council, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which considers the wider impact of how investment in the space sector will benefit the UK.

“This deal underlines the scale of Britain’s ambitions on the global stage,” said Business Secretary Alok Sharma. “Our access to a global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect millions of people worldwide to broadband, many for the first time, and the deal presents the opportunity to further develop our strong advanced manufacturing base right here in the UK.”

In a statement, OneWeb – which has its manufacturing base in Florida – said the deal would enable the company to emerge from bankruptcy with a “robust foundation” to continue its commercial operations: “The commitment of HMG accelerates and enhances OneWeb’s global access,” it said.

“OneWeb will contribute to the UK Government’s ambition to join the first rank of space nations, along with its commitment to making the UK the world’s leader in science and research and development.”

The 11th hour bid to acquire a stake in the firm was reportedly signed off last week by Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Ministers are said to be now seeking to secure additional finance to revive the business which was planning to launch 648 satellites.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The deal will support the UK to be a pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing and exploitation of novel satellite technologies, while boosting UK manufacturing. The deal will enable the company to develop technology to provide enhanced broadband and other services to mobile and fixed IT terminals in the UK and countries around the world.”

“It will also allow the UK to explore other potential strategic opportunities working with our international allies.”

While much attention has been focused on OneWeb as a potential alternative to Galileo, there are oubts among space industry experts about whether the OneWeb project can be repurposed for satellite navigation in a cost-effective manner; while the satellites launched so far are in low-Earth orbit, navigation satellites tend to be in medium-Earth orbit.

The UK Satellite Applications Catapult is preparing a white paper which suggests how the OneWeb constellation could be used to deilver precise timing data and potentially - through upgrades - navigation data.

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