Plans to open a spaceport by 2018 were unveiled at Farnborough Airshow today, as figures revealed the space sector has grown at 7.2 per cent over the last two years.
A report by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) highlighted eight airfields that could host the new facility after meeting strict criteria including having a runway that can be extended to more than 3,000m, the ability to accommodate dedicated segregated airspace and a safe distance from densely populated areas.
All eight locations are coastal, with six in Scotland – Campbeltown Airport Scotland, Glasgow Prestwick Airport, Kinloss Barracks, RAF Leuchars, RAF Lossiemouth, Stornorway Airport – and one apiece for England and Wales, Newquay Cornwall Airport and Llanbedr Airport respectively.
The Government hopes the proposed spaceport could help the UK capture 10 per cent of the world space market by 2030, worth £40bn a year, by becoming Europe’s leading spaceplane launch facility for space tourism and delivering small satellites into orbit. A consultation on the options opened today.
“Our plan is for Britain to have a fully functional, operating spaceport by 2018,” said Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill at the launch event this morning.
“This would serve as a European focal point for the pioneers of commercial spaceflight using the potential of spaceflight experience companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Swiss S3 to pave the way for satellite launch services to follow. It would also create a centre of gravity for related technology and service businesses.”
The report, which featured input from the Department of Business and Innovation, Department of Transport and the UK Space Agency, also detailed the CAA’s plans for regulating spaceplanes.
The vehicles are currently treated as aircraft, but the CAA is suggesting that they be considered as experimental aircraft in the short term. Such aircraft are normally not permitted to carry fare paying passengers, but the CAA has decided that exemptions should allow them to carry passengers on the principle of informed consent.
According to Sebby Alexandra, general council for Reaction Engines, which is developing the single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane Skylon, the companies developing spaceplanes have been working closely with the three agencies to devise a regulatory framework for several years.
“What happened was these companies came together and said, ‘we will be commercially ready in the next few years, maybe sooner, and we would like to have some regulatory structure’,” she said.
Firming up the status of spaceplanes paves the way for the development of certification programs to ensure the airworthiness of the vehicles, something that companies need to be able plan for earlier in the development cycle.
“Because we’re still in the design phase, certification for us right now is extremely important, and CAA understands that,” she said. “What underpins it all is safety. The safety not only of those that fly in it and the cargo, but people on the ground, because you know when testing it there are still thing’s that might go wrong.”
With many of the spaceplane likely to be used at the future spaceport having been designed in the USA, the report recommends aligning regulations with international standards, and this morning’s launch event was also used to announce the signing of a memorandum of cooperation with the US Federal Aviation Authority.
Rather than certify commercial space vehicles the FAA has decided to license operations. “We believe that applying a certification regime similar to aviation regimes may stifle the commercial human space transportation industry,” said Dr George Nield, FAA associate administrator.
But the report from the CAA determined that adopting a similar approach would require the Government to pass time-consuming primary legislation, and could also put the UK out of step with potential future European legislation.
Despite differing approaches, Nield stressed the need to ensure interoperability between the countries, especially considering that sub-orbital technology could eventually be used for super-fast intercontinental travel from one country to another.
The report predicts annual revenue from space tourism will rise from $19m (£11m) in the first year of operation to $65m in year 10, but while the economic case for space tourism is well developed, the possibilities for satellite launches from a UK spaceport are less obvious.
The UK’s northerly latitude means launches would only be able to achieve polar orbit, rather than the more common equatorial orbit, and those spaceplanes nearest completion would be unable to carry larger satellites or reach medium or high earth orbit.
But Dr Matt Perkins, chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology, said spaceplanes still have promise as satellite launch vehicles and the UK having its own launch capability could protect companies from the uncertainty and high costs of launching abroad.
Getting a fixed launch slot can cost more than a satellite, he said, meaning that many operators have to piggyback on other missions with the possibility of launches being delayed for months.
The considerably lower cost of launching with a spaceplane rather than a rocket could also help to introduce competition into the market and drive down costs. “If the cost of launch goes down, then current providers will also have to respond to that. The activities of Space X in the USA are having a fundamental effect on the market today,” said Perkins.
The report also considers the possibility of a spaceport that could support both horizontal space plane launches as well as vertical rocket launches, but concludes that the north coast of Scotland would be the only suitable site for such a facility.
As there are no suitable airfields on the north coast a site here would need to be purpose built, which would not meet the goal of providing a spaceport for spaceplanes in the short term, though the report does suggest a separate search for a vertical site should be undertaken.