Why we must reach for the stars and lead satellite race
PM should now back his own vow that UK will not miss out as space network crosses a new frontier ‘Sometimes we need to take the first step, even when we don’t know what the last step will be. If we don’t, someone else will’
Low-earth orbiting satellites – mega constellations as they are called – are the new technology that will define space in the 21st century. They will do for space what autonomous cars will do for transport, and gene editing for medicine. If the UK wishes to reap the “long-term strategic and commercial benefits” of space, as cited by Boris Johnson in his very first speech as Prime Minister, then Britain must take a stake. This new generation of communication satellites, orbiting just a few hundred miles above the earth, will for the first time open up every corner of the planet to the possibilities of highspeed broadband and 5G.
The race to build out this new global infrastructure is well under way, with UK-headquartered OneWeb, alongside Elon Musk’s StarLink network, being the first out of the blocks.
So OneWeb’s entry into Chapter 11 in March, following financial difficulties at major investor SoftBank, would seem like a major setback. Actually, it is a huge opportunity, and for the UK space sector, it is a fork in the road.
We have a decision to make. Either we stand by and watch, once again, the lead that the UK has established in a ground-breaking technology be ceded to other nations just at the point it starts to take off.
Or we double down to secure the UK’s position at the heart of this technology revolution, and commit to leading its exploitation.
The 21st century will be the era of driverless cars, robotic ships and autonomous drones. This will not be possible without the high-speed and truly ubiquitous communications that only these mega constellations can provide. Available over the oceans, the mountains, the deserts and in the forests, and in all places where human needs will demand it, these satellites will reach the places that 5G and other broadband technologies will never get to. As a bonus, an investment in OneWeb will give us the chance to solve the UK’s satellite navigation conundrum once and for all.
The UK’s exclusion from the EU’s Galileo programme after Brexit leaves us without a sovereign GPS-like capability, and the Government has committed to filling that gap with a dedicated UK system.
This would give us independence from both the EU’s Galileo, and the US’s GPS, but costs have escalated to an estimated £5bn. Now more than ever, that feels a bit of a luxury.
A solution built around OneWeb would be far more cost-effective because the costs of the satellites, the launches of those satellites and the large parts of the ground systems have already been paid for by the commercial communications venture.
This could substantially reduce the bill, making it affordable again.
This would also offer something new, which our allies want and value. A navigation signal through a highpower, high-frequency communications channel from low-earth orbit would be unique (GPS and Galileo both operate from far higher orbits, at far lower power and frequency) so will deliver new levels of performance and resilience.
Of course, this is new technology and we don’t have all the answers. Technology and design decisions still need to be made, and there may be regulatory hurdles.
But to allow these issues to hold us up would belie the opportunity before us. We should be prepared to back the world-beating expertise we have in this country to make those choices, and to find those answers, in order to realise the promise this technology offers before anyone else does.
Too often we have spent too long analysing and debating, so that we leave the door wide open to others.
This is especially true in space. We were and are pioneers of fridge-sized small satellites (through Surrey Satellites) and more recently the toaster-sized CubeSats (Clyde Space). But in both cases, we were too slow to recognise the potential they offered, and so much of the commercial benefit of this tech is now being realised overseas, in companies like Planet, Kepler and IceEye.
Even now we celebrate the high level of exports that both flagship companies deliver. Exports are great, but wouldn’t it be so much better if we could secure the benefits of exploitation, as well as manufacture, here in the UK? Other countries are taking advantage of this world-beating UK technology, in a way that we ourselves are not.
New space tech is almost always transformational, and the most valuable ways to use it are not obvious until the technology is in place. GPS itself was designed in the Eighties as a guidance tool for the military.
Who could have foreseen at that time how we would now rely on it to time our financial transactions, or to tell us precisely when our Amazon delivery is arriving? Mega constellations, because of their extra power and flexibility, have even more potential, and we are only just beginning to think about the ways they can be used to solve the challenges of the future and respond to the opportunities.
Chances like this, to lead the construction of an infrastructure the whole world will come to rely on, do not come up often. When they do, we need to react quickly and boldly, and not let a few question marks bind our hands. Let’s back our world-beating space scientists, technologists and businesses to get this system built, and quickly, so that we can all start using and benefiting from it ahead of the competition. Sometimes we need to be willing to take the first step, even when we don’t know what the last step will be.
If we don’t, history tells us that somebody else will. Stuart Martin is chief executive of Satellite Applications Catapult
A scale model of an Airbus OneWeb satellite, which could help revolutionise communications across the world