UK mulls OneWeb stake to build satellite navigation system

UK mulls OneWeb stake to build satellite navigation system

Business news |
By Jean-Pierre Joosting

The UK government is reported to be in talks to rescue OneWeb, the London-based satellite operator that went into administration in March.

The deal, valued between £400m and £500m for a 20 percent stake, would see the satellite network repurposed for navigation alongside the broadband capability. The company has raised £2.5bn ($3bn) since 2012 but entered Chapter 11 in the US as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It currently has 74 satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) that have shown data rates of 400 Mbps and latency of 32 ms.  

This follows the UK’s exit from the Galileo European satellite navigation system after leaving the European Union. But the proposal has raised questions on how a constellation designed for broadband can provide the timing data for navigation.  

One answer is in the recent request to the US regulator to increase its constellation to 48,000 satellites in low earth orbit. This would allow the constellation to provide links for the Internet of Things (IoT), competing with the proposed constellation of 42,000 LEO satellites from SpaceX. The IoT network would require timing signals that could be re-engineered to provide the navigation data.  One advantage is there would be many more satellites in view to acquire the signals, improving the accuracy.

One of the drivers behind the deal is the design skills of UK engineers. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) for example has demonstrated live 5G links via low earth satellites and has world leading skills in navigation systems and building small satellites. The UK Space agency has also been building up an eco-system of suppliers around small satellite systems.

However one issue will be the role of OneWeb Satellites. This is a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus with the world’s first high-volume, high-speed advanced satellite production facility in Florida. This employs 250 people and can produce two satellites a day.

This is building the first constellation of 650 satellites and scaling to 1,980 satellites, although there is also a satellite production line at Airbus in Toulouse, France (shown above).

One of the key requirements of the rescue will be to bring the satellite manufacturing to the UK. However setting up a new production line will be costly and take time, and the restructuring may not support such a move despite the political motivation.

The UK government has long been involved with the development of OneWeb. Back in February 2019 the UK government awarded an £18m grant to the company via UK Space and the European Space Agency.

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