Wednesday , June 19 2024

Cook Pt 2: Operationalising the Concept

In the first of this article, we looked at how the UK was planning to create a satellite navigation system as a replacement to Galileo. It was seen that access to an independent sat-nav network was vital for Britain’s national security, regardless of the cost. According to the PM, the UK is going to build a Sat Nav network anyway, with costs estimated between £2bn and £5bn. If they can recover the £1.2bn we’ve already spent towards Galileo, it means it’d be a max of £3.8bn, which could be a relative bargain in space costs.

It was seen that such a network would probably best be named after Britain’s foremost cartographers, explorers and discoverers: Captain James Cook. From here the next step was to see if we should invite other nations to join the system. This would drive down the cost for the UK, as well as expanding the total number of potential users by opening up new markets. First and foremost, it should be opened up to the other CANZUK nations (Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Following on from that, a number of other key allies could or should be invited in: Singapore, Brazil, India, Israel & Chile. These and potentially other nations would also want to access the independent and open navigation network.

This aspect is clear and will be Cook’s massive advantage over GPS, Galileo, Beidou and Glonass, is that it is neutral. Nations involved in Cook will only be “switched off” if such a nation is involved in active hostilities against the UK or any other key nation. Cook will not be used as a geopolitical tool to exert pressure on certain nations whose foreign policies are in disagreement with our own.  This will be a key thing to acquire other, smaller, nations to the project: In this respect, Cook will be like the Commonwealth: A tool for smaller, weaker, nations to pool their power to achieve their mutual foreign policy goals.

The UK maintains a technologically advanced network of engineers, including in space-related industries, as do most of the CANZUK nations. From the point where all four nations and any associated partners decide to go ahead, the satellites must be designed, constructed, launched, positioned and maintained, all of which are challenging objectives.

The first step is to design and construct the satellites that will compose the Cook Satellite Navigation Network (CSNN). This job would likely fall to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, or (SSTL), who launched their first satellite into orbit in 2005, and have since launched 18, with another four planned for the summer. Indeed, such is SSTL’s expertise, that they are the sole constructor of all the satellites for the EU’s Galileo project, ensuring they have a production line currently constructing 12 satellites at the present.

Yet SSTL are not the only UK factory constructing satellites. Airbus Defence & Space has a factory in Portsmouth, which they will close down as all Galileo work must be done within the UK. This EU law ignores the fact that the encryption for Galileo’s military standard navigation – the issue of the whole problem – was designed by a British firm. Until Airbus Defence & Space close down their factory in Portsmouth, there are 1,000 British scientists and satellite builders employed on building the Galileo project. When the factory is closed down, there will be 1,000 experts looking for another job in their field. Therefore, if Airbus UK has to fire these workers, doubtless, SSTL or another British satellite company would be happy to hire them. This would mean a brain drain from the EU’s space agencies towards the British one, which already has some edges over its continental equivalents.

So, Britain has the capability to build top quality satellites. But they are useless on the ground. To be effective, they must be in geostationary orbit. This means that they are so high up in space that they “fall around the earth”, or orbit, at precisely the same speed as the earth turns on its axis, ensuring that if one was to look up at it from the earth, it would be in the same place all the time. This is one of the harder orbits to launch spacecraft to.

The first answer might be to work with Virgin Orbit, a satellite launching company operating as part of the Virgin group. They are based out of the Mojave Air & Space Port in South-West America and plan to launch rockets capable of carrying payloads of up to 300kg into orbit. According to their website, they can operate from a variety of different locations. The advantage of Virgin Orbit is that it is a commercial, off the shelf option for launching smaller satellites. SSTL are also designing new satellites to fit in the Virgin Orbit rocket, known as launcher one.

The drawback is that it can only launch small satellites into low earth orbits. These are clearly not what is required for the Cook SNN.

Another option is a UK based company called Reaction Engines, which designed the HOTOL single-stage-to-orbit space plane in the late 1980s. It has designed a futuristic looking unmanned aircraft that can take off from a normal runway, climb into the atmosphere, and then switch its engines over to spaceflight and fly into space, before coming back to earth to land. Key to this aircraft called Skylon is their ‘Synthetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine’ or SABRE, which also offers the ability to fly from London to Australia in four and a half hours. This remarkable spaceplane can carry up to 7,500kg of payload up to an orbit from which geostationary orbit can be reached. For transfer to the International Space Station, 11,000kg of equipment can be brought up. There are a number of concept videos available.

However, Reaction Engines’ designs are just that, designs, and the development and creation of their Skylon would involve a lot more money and time. They estimate it will take to 2025 until the first flight, and in the meantime, it’d cost around £7 billion to develop. This would clearly more than double the cost of developing Cook, although its promised cost of launching satellites into space would be a major boost for British industry as it would undercut all current and planned launchers.

The other option is to use SpaceX. It is a US company and one with considerable ties to NASA. Further, they are likely to launch from outside the UK, CANZUK or Commonwealth, which would also partly negate the independence which is key to the entire concept behind Cook.

For any launch site, being as close to the equator as possible is a benefit for launching. A cursory look at the map suggests Ascension Island in the Atlantic, from where the Black Buck raids were launched during the 1982 Falklands War and has one of the longest runways in the world as well as a lot of open airspace with little traffic. Other options include may Barbados, Belize (a base for UK forces already), Guiana, Kenya, Diego Garcia, a massive UK-US military base in the Indian Ocean, Brunei, Northern Australia or Fiji. Singapore would be almost perfect, were it not for its extremely crowded airspace. Of the options, Ascension Island, Diego Garcia or Northern Australia would be the best options for security purposes (being within CANZUK territory).

These require the construction of a new spaceport, which would again be an increased cost. There is another option. ISRO, or the Indian Space Research Organisation has already developed a launch site, the rocket itself and everything a rocket launch or satellite control centre requires. This stems from India’s long-term research into the field and the creation of their own, regional, satellite navigation system: IRNSS, which functions as a de facto regional variant of Cook, developed for the same reasons.

India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle is already designed and ready to go. The only drawback it has is that the GSLV is not a reusable system, so the launch cost is expensive as an entirely new rocket must be built for each launch.

Going forward, it would be wisest to launch the initial series with the ISRO, while leaving the option open to investing in Skylon to ensure the UK has the potential to revolutionise space launch technology. This would be a considerable boost to the UK’s relationship with India, as well as being mutually beneficial.

Having launched the satellites, the Cook Satellite Navigation Network would need to operate them.

Inmarsat, a major satellite telecommunications company, well known to sailors around the world, is a British firm and registered in the UK. Their knowledge from operating satellites dates back to 1979, and they currently operate 13 satellites, providing telecommunications all over the world. Their experience would be crucial for Cook. Further, if ISRO was to get onboard, their expertise would be invaluable in ensuring Cook remains workable in the future as well as being on the cutting edge of space & satellite technology.

Therefore, in conclusion, we can say that the UK can, entirely by itself, create, develop, launch and maintain Cook. However, it would be more cost-effective and beneficial to do so with allies and key partners. CANZUK and India both bring a lot to the table and when operating together offers all the benefits of, and a great many to, the Commonwealth. In other words, the UK is left with Brexit: The sky is the limit for the UK. Like the film reporting the story of NASA in the ’50s and ’60s, the key part of developing a space progamme, or anything that requires work depends on having the “right stuff”. A familiar question returns to us: How much are we willing to invest in Brexit?

About Ted Yarbrough

Ted is the co-founder and editor of the Daily Globe. He is a long-time blogger on British politics and has written a thesis on Thatcherism.

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