Inmarsat satellite tests signal to replace lost UK navigation capability

TAMPA, Fla. — Inmarsat announced June 8 that it had begun transmitting a test navigation signal from an aging satellite to help the United Kingdom replace space capabilities it lost after Brexit.

The UK satellite operator is leading a group of local companies developing an alternative to the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), which Europe is using to augment and improve GPS services in the region.

The UK lost access to EGNOS satellites and ground stations last summer following the country’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union.

This includes access to the EGNOS Safety-of-Life (SoL) service which allows aircraft to perform high-precision landing approaches with fewer costly ground-based navigation aids.

The UK’s departure from the EU also means the country is no longer involved in Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS) which is expected to reach full operational capability this year.

The UK government has said it is looking to develop a variety of independent space capabilities following Brexit, which also aligns with its strategy to grow the country’s domestic space industry.

According to Inmarsat, it has repurposed a transponder on its I-3 F5 satellite to broadcast a Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) signal which provides a test bed to replace EGNOS SoL services.

The operator said the signal will help UK businesses and regulators validate plans for a UK Sovereign Space Based Augmentation System (UKSBAS) to complement GPS.

The plan is for the UKSBAS to use an overlay signal to improve services for satellite navigation users in UK airspace and waters, increasing positioning accuracy to within centimeters compared to the few meters provided by GPS. only standard.

Although the I-3 F5 was launched in 1998 to provide connectivity over the UK and the Atlantic Ocean, Inmarsat spokesman Matthew Knowles said it should have enough of fuel to continue operating even after the end of the first phase of UKSBAS testing. July.

Goonhilly earth station provides the signal uplink for testing from Cornwall in the South West of England. GMV NSL, the UK satellite navigation specialist owned by Spanish technology provider GMV, generates navigation data from the signal.

Knowles said the companies received around $1.5 million last year from the UK Space Agency, through the European Space Agency’s Navigation Innovation and Support Program (NAVISP), to conduct the first phase of testing.

He said further testing phases would need to take place until mid-2024 before the UKSBAS could become operational.

In 2017, Inmarsat started testing for a similar augmentation network from another satellite in its fleet for Australia and New Zealand, which are in the process of procuring an operational system through an open government tender.

Knowles said their program should “maybe start later this year or early next year.”

Navigation independence

The British government initially embarked on plans to develop its own GNSS after Brexit.

However, the government effectively decided against pursuing a full-fledged satellite navigation constellation in September 2020, when it replaced the GNSS project with its Space Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Program (SBPP).

Inmarsat was one of six companies in May to win UK Space Agency awards under the SBPP – worth a total of over £2million – to study associated technical and cost issues satellite navigation systems.

UK Space Agency spokesman Gareth Bethell said the companies had since reported their findings to the government, who were considering them and “working on next steps”.

Knowles said the UKSBAS project will “help build industry skills and capabilities” should the government decide to pursue independent satellite navigation capabilities.

UK megaconstellation startup OneWeb, part-owned by the UK government, is also considering adding PNT to its current and next-generation satellite services.

Startups including California-based Xona Space Systems, which recently deployed a test satelliteare also developing constellation plans that could complement or replace existing GNSS capabilities.

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