A director of the company that builds OneWeb’s satellites has cast doubt on speculation that the government’s new £400m stake in the firm could see production being relocated to Britain.
When the OneWeb acquisition was announced last month, the business secretary Alok Sharma said it would present “the opportunity to further develop our strong advanced manufacturing base right here in the UK”.
But in a recent interview with Space News, Debra Facktor, head of Airbus US Space Systems, which builds OneWeb satellites as part of a joint venture, said the company planned to continue manufacturing the satellites in Florida.
Asked to comment on speculation that OneWeb production could move to the UK, and what that would mean for the future of its US factory, Facktor – who also sits on the joint venture OneWeb Satellites’ board – told the publication: “We are committed to the US. We are in the space market and we’ve invested in Florida, so keeping our Florida operations is absolutely our intent and our plan.”
The comments are likely to dash hopes that the UK’s decision to save OneWeb from bankruptcy will accelerate the growth of Britain’s satellite manufacturing sector and lead to a surge of new jobs.
However, the deal’s sceptics had already raised questions about how many new manufacturing jobs would be created given the high-level of automation involved in developing space satellites.
Although OneWeb has been headquartered in the UK since 2017, its satellites are built in the US. In June, the company announced it was creating 150 tech roles in its west London headquarters, but it has not yet confirmed plans for any further British roles in light of the deal, which was approved by a US bankruptcy court last month. The Indian telecoms giant Bharti Global has also taken a £400m stake in the firm.
OneWeb did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company entered bankruptcy earlier this year after burning through between $50m and $100m a month in a bid to build out its constellation of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. It’s hoped the network of small satellites could bring broadband to parts of the world that are difficult to connect using more conventional telecoms infrastructure.
The government has also signalled its intention to adapt the satellites as part of a plan to develop a new satellite navigation system to replace the EU’s Galileo programme after Brexit. However, geodesy experts have expressed deep concerns about whether LEO satellites could be used for such a purpose. Their low orbit means they pass over the earth’s surface much more quickly than traditional satellites, making it harder to provide geolocation data accurate enough for the purposes the government is eyeing, such as in military systems.
As NS Tech revealed earlier this month, the government failed to consult its most senior scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, or the Ministry of Defence (MoD), before embarking on the controversial acquisition. The department for business pushed through the deal despite objections by its most senior civil servant and claims that the government may never see a return on the investment.
In a letter to the business secretary, Alok Sharma, the department’s then acting permanent secretary, Sam Beckett, warned that she was not satisfied that “this investment meets the requirements for Value for Money as set out in Managing Public Money”. Sharma exploited a rarely used Whitehall protocol, called a ministerial direction, to proceed with the deal.