A Driving Instructor's Blog

Interconnecting cogs and gearsThe only people likely to not realise the significance of technology in the world today – other than a few isolated tribes in the Amazonian rain forests – are Brexiters. Even if they’re technically capable of understanding, they won’t, because they’re blinded by their obsession to leave the EU no matter what the ultimate cost.

My view on Brexit should be well known by now. It was the stupidest decision this country has ever made, and it was largely made by the stupidest people this country has ever thrown into the gene pool. They should never have been given a direct vote on something they did not understand. And make no bones about it, in spite of what some may claim, the majority of Brexiters haven’t a clue about what they’ve done. All that mattered to most of them was the idea that Britannia would Rule The Waves again without any help from those damned foreigners, and that we would kick out anyone whose skin was not alabaster white by the afternoon of 24 June 2016. It was those two things, coupled with the lie emblazoned across that big red bus about spending £350,000,000 a week on the NHS, that carried the vote.

Since last June, having more or less resigned themselves to not seeing convoys of people being kicked out of the UK (yet – they still live in hope), they’ve spent much of the time accusing the media of “bias” every time it reports simple economic facts. The pound falls in value, reporting it is left-wing bias. Someone mentions the risk of losing access to the single market, it’s “remoaner bias”. Interest rates stay fixed, the BoE is anti-Brexit. There’s talk of interest rates going up, the BoE is anti-Brexit.

They are just too thick to understand that the economy isn’t controlled by a single light switch, but is more akin to a supercomputer, full of logic gates and conditional switches. A better analogy for what I’m going to say next is that it is like some huge steampunk device, composed of myriad interconnecting gears and cogs.

Brexit has been like someone ramming a huge spanner into it.

Most Brexiters will have been completely unaware of Galileo, a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) being developed by the EU. The fact that many Brexiters are probably also unaware (or certainly wary) even of GPS in the first place means that they will have also been unaware of its limitations. Civilian GPS resolution is limited to 4 metres at best, though the military can resolve to less than 10cm. Since it is controlled by the US, the service could be switched off at any time in any significant conflict scenario. Galileo GNSS, on the other hand, would offer the same resolution to all users, and this could be down to a few centimetres once it is operational. The USA has not been happy about this.

Galileo is a combined effort by the ESA and the European GNSS Agency. As a member of the EU, the UK has equal rights to work on EU projects, and SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) in the UK has so far built navigation payloads for 22 of the estimated 30 satellites needed to form the Galileo system in space. SSTL will retain those equal rights right up until the day the UK officially leaves the EU.

And that’s where the potential shit hits the fan.

On Thursday this week, the contract for a further 8 satellites is to be signed at the Paris Air Show. However, SSTL is unlikely to have delivered all 8 of those by the time Brexit happens on 29 March 2019. At that point, it will become “illegal” for the UK – as a “third country” – to work on certain aspects of the Galileo system. Only a Brexiter could also fail to appreciate that it would kibosh any future involvement, or that the UK’s use of Galileo once it becomes operational would also become questionable.

Each Galileo satellite costs about €30 million (£26.5 million), and SSTL will be earning a significant chunk out of that right now. After Brexit, they probably won’t – not unless this issue is added to the growing list of Things The UK Must Demand From The EU during Brexit talks, and is resolved in our favour.

On a related note, another jingoistic outburst yesterday involving The Queen’s Speech reports that Britain will “shoot for the moon”.

One will focus on growing the space sector and would allow satellites to be launched from the UK for the first time, as well as develop scientific missions and manned vertical rockets.

I can see it now. Once the mandatory “democratic vote” involving school children has taken place to name the new launch system, the Rocky McRocketface Two-stage Payload Deployment System Mk I will eventually have the opportunity to do one of three things:

  • make it into space
  • explode over the North Sea
  • explode over somewhere else. Like Hull

I noticed some Brexiter commenting on Facebook yesterday:

Facebook post - Leslie Chiazzari DuckworthAt the moment, all Brexit supporters can do is try to make silk purses out of sows’ ears. Notice how, after informing everyone that the government wouldn’t be launching the satellites directly (no, really?) he skims over the massive logistical issues, which should be quite clear to any sensible person.

Satellite launching in Australia and the USA (and Russia, for that matter) is successful for one main reason, which can be demonstrated easily using ruler and a map of the world.World Map

Australia is over 30x bigger than the UK, and it’s population density is over 140x less. Woomera launch site is 4 miles from the nearest road (and there are only two of those in a radius of at least 150 miles), and 8 miles from the nearest town not including Woomera itself (and 35 miles from the only other one after that). The USA is over 40x bigger than the UK, and its population density is just a tenth of the UK’s. Cape Canaveral is at least 4 miles away from the nearest non-military town, and over 12 miles away from the nearest large town. Both of these launch sites have convenient oceans nearby, with nothing for thousands of miles.

In the UK, even in the middle of one of the national parks, you’re lucky if you’re further than a couple of miles away from any place where people are likely to be, even if they’re just passing through on bikes or having a cream tea in a cafe. And that’s especially true near the only coast line with enough sea to minimise the risk of pissing off the neighbours if a launch went titsup. Of course, there’s Scotland – and if we could persuade them to let us screw up some heathland, then there’d only be the matter of the weather, with rain, snow, and gale force winds for 360 days of the year.

Before we gloss over these risks, it’s worth remembering that the last mission we had any significant involvement with (the only one I can think of, actually, where we tried to land something ourselves) created a new crater on the surface of Mars. And we we weren’t even involved with the initial flashy, explodey bit. Launching rockets in the UK carries immense risks, and these never go away, since even with successful launch systems there is a risk of catastrophic failure every single launch. It happens even to people who are quite good at it, and who have a proven track record. We don’t.

If anything goes wrong in Woomera, the sand just gets a bit of browner. In the US, there’s a big splash. Over here, you could lose Cardiff.

And finally, there is the timescale and cost. Considering that the current government will be lucky if it lasts another 6 months with the way things are now, identifying a location, building the facility, developing rockets, testing them, then finally using them will take a decade or more. Assuming everything is a complete success at each stage – which would buck the trend for everyone else who has ever gone into this industry – the entire development sequence will only cost money. It cannot make money until it is successfully launching stuff into space. And even then, the implication is that it’s our stuff.

Each launch of the Ariane system costs about £150m. It cost billions to develop – and it took decades to develop.

Ironically, there’s already a bloody system in place. And it is called Ariane. And we’re walking away from it, to build our own as a result of our suicidal decision to leave the EU.

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