Plans for Britain to join the space race with its own satellite navigation system face being scrapped as officials conclude that the ambitious post-Brexit project would be a waste of taxpayer funds.
The Telegraph understands that mandarins in the Cabinet Office and Department for Business are pressing ministers to shut down work on the programme, which was set up after Brussels froze the UK out of the EU’s Galileo satellite scheme.
Boris Johnson has signalled his support for the £5 billion project, saying that Britain should “get going” on its own alternative to Galileo and America’s GPS, the system used to power smartphone location services, sat-navs and military applications.
But civil servants are pushing for ministers to begin winding down the programme in the coming weeks, arguing that it would not represent value for money.
Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, has urged ministers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to decide on the project’s future as the Prime Minister focuses on the national response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sir Mark is understood to have argued that the satellite project is unaffordable.
A British GPS could provide a private and ultra-accurate encrypted signal for military uses such as drones and missiles. Defence has been a central argument for a UK alternative after the armed forces were denied access to Galileo’s secure “PRS” signal.
A recent report into a UK satellite system prepared for the UK Space Agency, seen by The Telegraph, has also concluded that it could earn hundreds of millions of pounds a year from private companies by 2030.
The analysis by the consultancy McKinsey, shared with industry partners, estimated that a secure commercial service could make up to £480 million a year by licensing a secure signal to driverless car manufacturers and shipping firms, potentially covering the annual running costs of the system. The cost of the system has been estimated at £3 billion to £5 billion.
Scrapping the project would be a major blow to Britain’s space industry, which has been seen as a national priority and which was due to play a key role in Galileo before the UK was barred from the programme.
Global navigation systems use a constellation of satellites with atomic clocks to provide accurate location and timing signals for energy grids and mobile networks as well as smartphones.
The British economy could lose an estimated £1 billion a day if the American GPS system currently relied on were to go offline.
In 2018 Theresa May handed the UK Space Agency £92 million to assess the feasibility of a UK satellite system. The money is believed to have largely been spent, and Space Agency officials are now weighing up the cost of scrapping the programme or keeping their options open by maintaining industry contracts and deciding whether to go ahead at a later date.
Mr Johnson backed the project in his first speech as Prime Minister last year, saying: “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.”