Brexit Effects Extend to Medium-Earth Orbit

The UK’s pending removal from the EU’s satellite navigation efforts will test the country’s space industry


Since 1999, the European Union (EU), European Space Agency (ESA), and their respective member countries have collaborated to develop Galileo, a €10 billion satellite navigation system to rival Russia’s GLONASS and United States GPS. Now, with 22 of 24 operational Galileo satellites in orbit, Europe is a stone’s throw from fully activating its own global positioning and navigation system. But Brexit has created an element of frustration and uncertainty for the program in recent weeks.

The UK has long been a leading player in the financing and manufacture of Galileo hardware. Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), a space engineering firm based in Guildford, UK, was tasked to build all 22 Galileo navigation payloads thus far. The country has invested a total of €1.4 billion into the project, Reuters reports. That relationship will end after the UK officially separates from the European Union in March 2019, unless the parties negotiate a deal specifying otherwise.

The ESA has ruled it will only select EU member states as lead contractors for future Galileo work. Further, the EU stated external nations cannot participate in classified or security-sensitive projects. As a result, the European Commission has suggested the UK be stripped of its access to Galileo’s encrypted Public Regulated Service (PRS), for which the UK is currently developing military platform receivers.

The UK isn’t happy about the restrictions, and is attempting to convince the ESA and EU to continue the partnership as it existed before Brexit for the good of the Galileo project. A document produced by the British government emphasizes the country’s desire to continue participating in Galileo development efforts, and argues that complete exclusion of the UK from Galileo operations “risks delays of up to three years and additional costs of up to €1 billion,” before the system can be activated.

The same document points to a Joint Report from December 2017 that “provides for continued UK participation in Galileo for the remainder of this Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2014-2020,” and establishes “Union assets relating to Union space programmes (EGNOS, Galileo & Copernicus) are not part of the financial settlement.” Because Galileo participation is now being restricted, the UK feels its “past contribution to the financing of space assets should be discussed,” in the form of reimbursement.

A complete separation from Galileo, as well as other EU-led remote sensing programs such as Copernicus, is a blow to the British space industry in the short term, but opens the door for the UK to redirect its cash flow to domestic projects. In fact, the UK suggests if it is excluded from working on Galileo’s encrypted PRS, which would theoretically be used by UK armed services for operations planning and missile navigation, the country may develop a satellite navigation system of its own to meet British security specifications. After all, the country developed a high percentage of the sat-nav capabilities employed by the Galileo constellation.

Unlike France and Germany, the UK spends roughly one third less on British satellite efforts than it spends on projects for the ESA, BBC reports. The Space Growth Partnership, a coalition led by players in the British commercial space industry, says this is a “fundamental weakness,” and calls for sustained investment in a sharper, more unified national space program.

For now, the UK will look to negotiate terms that allow it to continue work on Galileo’s payloads and ground stations while maintaining access to secure features.

Headline Image: Already above Earth’s atmosphere, Ariane’s aerodynamic fairing is jettisoned and the four Galileo satellites ‘see’ space for the first time. Photo Credit: ESA.

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