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Start Ariane 5 mit Galileo Satelliten
Image: ESA-/Manuel Pedoussaut

No Irish. No blacks. No dogs. No Galileo

May 17, 2018

Stuff business! The Brexit-tinged tussle over the EU's satellite navigation system, Galileo, is all about the technology and the engineering expertise that the UK desperately wants - and needs - to keep.


There's been a lot of talk about the EU's satellite constellation Galileo of late — how it's apparently just got dragged into the Brexit kerfuffle. One day the UK's got some secure satellite technology it's refusing to hand over, and the next day it's saying it will build its own satellite navigation system to rival Europe's rival to America's GPS.

And perhaps it's all a bluff. It may even be an orchestrated distraction.

What it most certainly does is highlight the animosity and rejection felt when people go separate ways — especially in a process that has seen xenophobic tendencies reemerge in the UK, as they did in the post-war years, when Irish and Black Caribbean immigrants faced a taunt of "no Irish, no blacks, no dogs." Only with Brexit the rejection is a two way street. "No EU? Then no Galileo."    

But let's not get bogged down in the "he said, she said" of it all. We won't tinker with the politics or consider the "business case," not much anyway. Because the UK's dispute over Galileo — this global navigation satellite system (GNSS) — is all about the technology. It's about the expertise in satellite science that the UK has been building over the past few decades. And it's invested a lot of that into building Galileo.

Read more: Four more Galileo satellites enter space

Parts of the system, especially the military grade stuff, the secure encrypted technology behind the restricted signals of what's called the Public Regulated Service (PRS) are the UK's baby. Well, it's definitely one of the parents.

Who would willingly hand over their baby in a divorce? And which parent would want to restrict the other's access? That's what we've got here. And it's almost as idiotic as Brexit itself.

Galileo Satelliten auf einer Sojus Rakete
Cutaway of a Soyuz rocket carrying a pair of Galileo satellitesImage: ESA/Pierre Carril, 2016

"It's in the EU's interest for the UK to be part of Galileo, and to be part of the Public Regulated Service. The UK, whether or not it's a member of the EU, is a very important military and intelligence partner in Europe," says Alexandra Stickings, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK. "So restricting the UK's access is in no one's interest."

Galileo in the UK

Aside from its military and intelligence capabilities, the UK is considered a world-leader in small satellite — or cube sat — technology. A new UK Industrial Strategy paper puts satellites front and center, as the country aims to secure 10 percent of the global space market by 2030. So it's also making progress, maybe more than others in Europe, including Portugal, in setting up spaceports for satellite and commercial spaceflights.

And, yes, it wants to make money from that, plus secure the jobs. But when we talk about jobs in the space sector it's not just about the money or lowering unemployment. As with any company undergoing a major transition or sale, countries are nothing without the people who make them what they are. And science, not least space science, makes a sizeable chunk of what the UK is today.

"The whole of the UK space sector sees a risk in Brexit because of things like Galileo, because of continued access to research funding," says Malcolm Macdonald, a professor in space science at the University of Strathclyde. "You know, it's considered perfectly normal in the space sector just to hop around Europe - the sector has grown up with free movement, without customs barriers, all that sort of thing. So for there then to be a potential border between us and most of our very close collaborators is obviously a risk and a concern."

Brexit Galileo-Satelliten
Two Galileo satellites are released into orbitImage: picture-alliance/esa/J. Huart

But with its erroneous exit on the horizon, the last thing the UK wants is its expertise upping sticks before the drawbridge comes down. It's already clear that one Galileo ground operations facility, the Galileo Security Monitoring Center (GSMC), will move to Madrid. And other work could move to France or Germany.

Read more: Galileo satellites on wrong orbit

That goes some way to explaining why the UK has come out claiming continued access to Galileo. And why it's threatening to set up its own GNSS. But could it?

"Yes, of course it could, but so could France, Germany, Italy," says Macdonald. "From a technical perspective, lots of countries in Europe could do it if they chose to do it. The cost of doing it is a separate thing, but where there's a political will, most of the countries of Europe could do it if they wanted to."

There's a good reason to do it too

A GNSS, like America's GPS, or Russia's GLONASS and China's Beidou system, provides accurate position, navigation and timing signals. The systems consist of a constellation of satellites — in Galileo's case 24 plus spares — fitted with highly sensitive atomic clocks — clocks that are accurate to the scale of nanoseconds. That's one billionth of a second.

All clocks keep time by regular oscillations, like the swing of a pendulum. An atomic clock, by comparison, keeps time with microwave signals that are emitted when an atom is forced to switch states. On Galileo satellites it's a passive hydrogen maser clock, which can measure time within 0.45 nanoseconds over 12 hours.


ESA Pressebild - Passive hydrogen maser elements
Elements of a passive hydrogen maser "atomic clock" as used on Galileo satellitesImage: ESA

"These signals are used by the military to allow them to know exactly where they are, understand their environment, and assist with targeting," says Stickings. "But they're also used by the international financial system, which relies on the signals for the timing of transactions. If you look at air travel, train networks and satnavs in cars, and anyone who has a smartphone, they will be enabled to receive these signals."

But GNSS systems tend to have at least two tiers - one of which you're not getting on your phone. The first tier is relatively open and free, and the other is a restricted, higher-resolution service, like Galileo's PRS. The PRS is an encrypted, military grade signal, which has been built to resist jamming. It also has anti-spoofing capabilities, giving it a hardened shell to protect against accidental and intentional electromagnet interference in space — interference like that could knock out the system and disable earthly networks, including emergency services and police. This is the part to which the EU wants to block the UK's access.

  • Spoofing is "the transmission of counterfeit GNSS signals that may force a receiver to compute an erroneous position."
  • Jamming is the "intentional transmission of radio frequency signals that can interfere with GNSS signals."

Come who may - except you

"The difficulty with the PRS is that non-EU member states cannot have access to the signal," says Stickings. "The UK would have to negotiate that access. I know Norway is negotiating as, I think, the US is as well."

So it should be possible. And it is.

Galileo – Positioning its progress

In an email statement to DW, a European Commission spokesperson (who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the Brexit issue) reiterated the public line that "the EU space programs are of vast economic, societal and security-related value to Europe. […] The United Kingdom will become a third country on 30 March 2019. […] Now is the right time to start thinking about adjusting cooperation, regarding the Galileo program."

It doesn't really tell us much. But, then, neither do the rules for access to the public regulated service as at October 25, 2011.

Clause 8 of the document's preamble states that "it should be possible for certain third countries and international organizations to become PRS participants through separate agreements […] however such agreements should not include particularly security-sensitive matters such as the manufacturing of security modules."

So you could, for instance, interpret the rules as saying that no third countries are welcome to join but that everyone is welcome to try. Or, for instance, that allowing the UK access and control within the PRS would amount to "exports outside the Union," when exports are only permitted to third countries with a relevant agreement in place. And that the UK does not have as yet, so the Union can only restrict UK access to the PRS.

Infografik Raumschrott ENG
Eventually all technology turns to junk. New satellites are required to be de-orbited within 25 years of the end of their "life"

Read more: Rendezvous with a death star: satellites may one day rust in peace at the Necropolis

"The concept of Galileo was to provide Europe with a strategic independence from the American GPS system, which is operated by the Pentagon, and although it's a free service there is a theoretical possibility that that service could be turned off," says Macdonald.

The keyword there is "theoretical" possibility.

"But the EU's position, as I understand it," says Macdonald, "is that you can't have strategic independence if you have a dependency on a third country. And the UK's position is, 'Ah, yeah, but we want a really close relationship with you and, therefore, it doesn't really matter that we're no longer a member because this would be a good way of showing how close and strategically aligned we are."

Macdonald suspects the EU's position is one of "dogma." A kind of that's what we've decided, and you're deviating from the plan, so tough!

'I want my money back!'

There's probably also an element of the UK feeling its "inner Thatcher." It's invested so much expertise in Galileo that it will want to see a return on that investment. UK companies like Surrey Satellites Technology Limited (SSTL), QinetiQ, and CGI will be loath to handing over their technology without future access or control over its operation and further development. Like Thatcher, they will want their technology back — or stop it transferring in the first place.

Read more: Opinion: Galileo - a test of Europe's maturity

The problem there is that their investment is now owned by the EU, or so it would seem. There's a bit of confusion as to the specifics on ownership — whether that's ownership of hard and software, or the intellectual property — the rules are as vague as Facebook's Privacy Policy. In fact, the word "ownership" only crops up once if I'm not mistaken, and the Commission's spokeswomen failed to respond when we asked her to clarify. 

All this leaves the question of whether the UK really should build its own GNSS. Would it do it to stick it to the EU? Or simply to maintain its capabilities and technological expertise?

Französisch-Guayana Weltraum-Bahnhof in Kourou
Soyuz rockets carrying Galileo satellites launch from the Guiana Space Centre in French GuianaImage: DW/Z. Abbany

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) position is less cloudy than the PRS access rules, but just as robust as the European Commission's view that the UK will become a security threat once it leaves the EU.

In a statement, the UK Space Agency's CEO, Graham Turnock, says "we should begin work now on options for a national alternative to Galileo to guarantee our satellite positioning, navigation and timing needs are met in the future."

At the same time, the agency is also asking all "PRS authorized" companies in the UK to consult with the UKSA before accepting any future contracts to work on Galileo and another program called the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS).

But that doesn't mean there will be a UK GNSS any time soon, or that there should be. Alexandra Stickings says the money could be better spent elsewhere in space.

"The UK does have the technical capability to build its own [GNSS] but as we've seen with GPS, with Galileo, there have been significant delays and cost overruns -forgetting what's happening with Brexit," she says. "And the UK has significant capability gaps in space, where we have the expertise in country. So where is the UK space budget going? Is it going to go towards replicating a system which already exists and to which we could have access, or will it go towards building other aspects of UK space, like Earth observation, surveillance satellites and the small sat technical expertise that we have?"

*A day after this article was published (17.5.2018), the European Commission spokesperson wrote back to a) request that their name be removed from the article and b) on the issue of who owns the PRS technology, referred me to some background notes, but said we were not allowed to quote them. 

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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