Britain has reportedly invited Australia and others to join it in the creation of another satellite positioning system, since it has quit the European Union Galileo system due to Brexit.
UK newspaper The Telegraph reported that the UK Space Agency had held discussions with representatives of the “Five Eyes” security community – the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – about the proposal.
Britain apparently has in mind the other partners providing funding or technological support in return for access to the new £5 billion system’s most accurate military grade positioning signal.
The Australian Defence Force said officials had been briefed on a UK proposal to develop a sovereign global navigation satellite system.
“To understand the details of the proposal and develop a response, Defence is engaging Australian government agencies,” a spokesperson said.
“Any Australian involvement will be considered in-line with Australia’s national interests, other interests and the merits of the proposal.”
Australia currently uses the US Global Positioning System (GPS) for civil and military positioning. There are rival systems – the EU Galileo, China’s Beidou, Russia’s GLONASS, India’s IRNSS and Japan’s QZSS – each with its own satellite constellation and expanding area of coverage.
After sinking £1.2 billion into the Galileo project, Britain gave up on the project in December. The UK’s problem was that only EU member states would be permitted access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS), the encrypted navigation service, much of which the UK developed.
The Galileo project began in 1999 with the objective of creating a 30 satellite constellation, reducing member nation reliance on US and other systems.
The first satellite was launched in 2012 with full rollout expected to be completed next year. The Telegraph said the UK Armed Forces were keen on Galileo on grounds that the US currently keeps back the best GPS service for its own military.
Military GPS is typically more accurate than civil systems but only because they can access more satellite signals. However, civil GPS augmentation systems, which Australia is embracing, provide a more accurate positioning than even military GPS.
In theory, the US and other position system operators can selectively degrade their signal. However, in 2000 the US undertook never to do that again because of the growing civil and commercial use of GPS.
For Australia, access to an additional satellite positioning system operated by a close ally could provide useful redundancy in event that GPS became unavailable in a conflict.
The Telegraph reported that UK officials believed the expertise gained from on Galileo meant they could build their own, with former prime minister Theresa May providing the Space Agency with funding to examine construction of a home grown positioning system.
It added that the government was set to decide in coming months whether to proceed. Support from Five Eyes partners could come in various forms, such as launch services and satellite firms contributing to the technology.
Australia already collaborates with the UK on its Skynet military satellite communications system, hosting a ground station in Mawson Lakes, South Australia.
“To actually deliver the program we need to have things on their territory,” said one source quoted by The Telegraph.
The Telegraph said it understood the UK was yet to start formal talks with potential partners as its own commitment to proceeding was so far unclear.
However, new British PM Boris Johnson is right behind the idea, saying Britain should proceed.
“Let’s get going now on our own position navigation and timing satellite and Earth observation systems – UK assets orbiting in space with all the long-term strategic and commercial benefits for this country,” he said in his first speech as PM.
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