UK to track migrant smugglers from space as launch gets approval

Migrant crossing deal with France criticised by Natalie Elphicke

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The UK will use satellites to track migrant smugglers from space after Spaceport Cornwall was granted permission to go ahead with the first-ever rocket launch from British soil. Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One rocket, which will be carried under the wing of a Boeing 747, is set to blast off from Spaceport Cornwall’s site at Newquay Airport Cornwall in a historic event. It comes after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) gave the green light for the launch, deeming it safe to go ahead. But this is not just a key moment for the UK’s burgeoning space sector, as one of the seven satellites that the Launcher One rocket will take into orbit includes the Amber-1 satellite, which was designed to stop people smugglers from illegally trafficking migrants.

The satellite was by UK start-up Horizon Technologies. It functions by hunting for satellite phone and radar signals coming from boats that have turned off their automatic identification systems (AIS) transponders, which allows them to go undetected.

But the Amber-1 will survey the Earth’s waters in search of tell-tale signs of illegal activity, feeding the information back to the UK Joint Maritime Security Centre and the Royal Navy. This could prove vital in stopping migrants from taking dangerous routes to reach UK shores, a major priority of the Home Office. 

So far in 2022, more than 40,000 people have crossed the English Channel in small boats. While the UK and France have struck a deal that involves London handing over £8millon more a year to Paris to try and prevent slash the number of migrants entering the UK via this route, the Amber-1 will likely provide an extra helping hand. 

John Beckner, CEO of Horizon, came up with the concept of Amber-1 when he discovered that criminals were communicating via satellite telephones that can be tracked. He said: “For people moving long distances, they use sat phones to communicate, both the refugees themselves and their smuggler bosses.”

In recent years, the number of migrants crossing the Channel has ramped up. This is changing the trend which previously saw smugglers typically taking people into the UK in lorries. But following the tightening of security at the Port of Calais in France – where UK border controls have been made stricter – more smugglers are opting for Channel routes. 

This leaves limited safe and legal routes open for migrants to travel into the UK, meaning those hoping to leave northern France often resort to very dangerous methods to enter Britain. 

Charities and aid organisations have for years been calling on the Government to set up more safe and legal routes for people to claim asylum in Britain, but Home Secretary Suella Braverman believes that migrants “deliberately entering the UK illegally from a safe country should be swiftly returned to their home country or relocated to Rwanda”.

She has pledged: “I will look to bring forward legislation to make it clear that the only route to the UK is through a safe and legal route.” However, the intervention by the European Court of Human Rights has appeared to have problems with this policy, and back in june forced the cancellation of the fist flight to Rwanda just minutes before take-off. 

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In recent years, journies in small boats across the Channel have claimed a number, including several children. Border Force also only has a limited number of cutters and patrol boats which are used to intercept smuggler boats and bring people ashore.

And when vast numbers of migrants make the journey, Border Force, RNLI and Coastguard can sometimes struggle to cope. This is why the Amber-1 satellite could come in handy. The Amber-1 satellite made its way from AAC Clyde Space in Glasgow to Spaceport Cornwall earlier this year. 

It has been integrated into Virgin Orbit’s launch system and is ready for the Start Me Up mission, the UK’s first space which looks likely to go ahead in the coming weeks. 

Lucy Edge, Chief Operations Officer, Satellite Applications Catapult: “Horizon Technologies’ satellite brilliantly demonstrates the success of UK space businesses and the supply chain we have today for the design, build, launch and operations of small satellites.

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“The story of this satellite is one of remarkable UK companies collaborating for mutual success. This launch from UK soil marks the start of the next great stage in the UK’s space story, unlocking commercial access to space from our own back gardens.”

Amber-1 is expected to be the first of more than 20 planned Amber satellites which will provide Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) data to users. They will use unique, patented technology. As well as providing data on the tracking and prevention of illegal smuggling, Horizon technology will also inform Governments about trafficking, piracy, and terrorism. 

Esra Kasapoglu, Director of AI and Data Economy, Innovate UK said: The British satellite and space sector plays a significant role in saving lives, digital communications, location services, scientific discoveries and creating environmental and social impact.” 

Science Minister George Freeman said: :British satellites have been saving lives at sea for decades by providing emergency communications and location services, so it is fitting that Virgin Orbit’s first mission from Space Cornwall later this year will launch a maritime intelligence satellite.

“This will be a major milestone for our £16 billion space and satellite sector and a great example of the government’s National Space Strategy in action.”

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