Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two

Suborbital spaceport in UK feasible

The UK should focus on the nascent sub-orbital spaceflight sector and become a future hub, opening its own spaceports, if it wants to make the best out of the emerging technology.

Speaking at the International Space Commerce Summit in London today, Dan Lewis, Energy Policy Adviser at the Institute of Directors, said that despite the high population density and the extremely dense air-traffic in its airspace, the UK should seize the opportunity brought about by companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR or Blue Origin.

“We should capitalise on the deep local research culture,” Lewis said. “The progress in sub-orbital vehicle technology is moving faster than previously foreseen and can change the current dynamics of the space industry. We need to start thinking seriously about these opportunities,” he said, suggesting that in addition to the existing telecommunications and satellite research centres, UK universities should consider establishing dedicated sub-orbital technology research centres.

So far, telecommunications and satellite services have been the most thriving part of the UK’s space industry, creating more than £1.5bn in revenues annually. However, this dynamics could soon change, thanks to the emerging sub-orbital technology.

“The next 20 years will be suborbital, the question is how to dig into these opportunities,” Lewis said.

Lewis believes there are several locations in the UK offering favourable conditions to become future sub-orbital space flight hubs.

“We are now examining the options, looking at various airfields. Right now, we believe the best location could be either in Torquay, Kinloss or Wales,” he said.

However, some of the delegates at the summit listening to Lewis’s presentation were sceptical. In fact, all existing spaceports have always been selected with safety of those on the ground and those in the air in mind, with preferable locations in abandoned sparsely populated areas with little commercial air-traffic above. Even the currently built Space Port America in the Mojave desert in New Mexico is by far not a busy location.

“Of course, we wouldn’t be launching from the Heathrow airport or London city,” Lewis said. “But we can certainly find options. For example, in the first years of operations, we can be taking off above water to reduce the risk for those on the ground,” he said.

Even without sub-orbital, UK space sector is by far the fastest growing sector of the country’s economy, with an average growth rate of almost 7.5 per cent, and ambitions to increase annual turnover to £40bn by 2030.

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