A government-backed satellite project to rival the EU’s has been scrapped and labelled nothing more than a “vanity project” by a former Tory defence minister.
Theresa May’s plan for Britain to have its own GPS satellite navigation system has been ditched, leaving many in Whitehall pressuring the government to rejoin the EU’s Galileo programme.
May had allocated £92 million for the project back in May 2011 and earlier this year the government teamed up with a private telecomms company to purchase a 45% (£900 million) in OneWeb, a bankrupt US technology company which had attempted to build a constellation of 650 satellites.
Now, the entire project is on the verge of being scrapped after experts said the machinery could not be re-purposed.
Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, agreed, and said the failure of OneWeb has left the UK without a back-up to the US’ Global Positioning System (GPS).
The former parliamentary under-secretary for defence told The Express the system had been a “vanity project”.
He said: “We need to remove the politics from security.
“Common sense must prevail. If we don’t have the back-up of Galileo we are going to have problems.”
Suggestions the machinery could we re-purposed to operate as a GNSS system have also been ditched after experts said their orbit was too low to make the idea viable.
An industry insider told the media outlet: “The OneWeb satellites are not currently designed to deliver a navigation service, so are not a solution to the lack of access to Galileo.
“The production facility developed by Airbus for OneWeb in order to build the satellites is a) largely robotic (to keep the costs down) and b) in Florida.
“For both these reasons, the claim about bringing lots of jobs to the UK is questionable in the extreme.
“Note also that, if they try to change the satellite design in order to provide a navigation service they’d have to redesign the robotic production facility, and that would not be cheap.”
They added: “Having licensed OneWeb, under international treaties the UK is now legally liable for the OneWeb satellites
“If OneWeb goes bust and abandons its hardware in space, the UK is responsible for the debris.”
Whitehall and industry experts are now pushing the government to rejoin the EU’s sat-nav system – an idea being flatly rejected by No 10.
In July, business secretary Alok Sharma told MPs the government was “exploring how OneWeb may be able to contribute to PNT resilience in the future”.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The government has set a clear ambition for a sovereign space programme which will bring long-term strategic and commercial benefits for the UK. Work is ongoing across government to determine the UK’s positioning, navigation and timing requirements, and assessing options for meeting them.”