£4.12m space rocket test facility given the go-ahead

The UK Space Agency is funding a National Space Propulsion Facility on the site of the former Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott in Buckinghamshire.

Engines for interplanetary travel and futuristic space planes will be tested at the centre, to be built over the next year or so.

It was here that early work was carried out on two early British space rockets, Black Arrow and Blue Streak, both of which were eventually scrapped.

The UK Space Agency said the £4.12m project would give UK companies and research organisations ‘a new facility for space technology testing’.

Katherine Courtney, interim chief executive of the agency, said: "Opening these facilities up to UK companies and academia will allow them to develop and test future propulsion engines.

"We hope this will develop the UK's competitive edge in space propulsion and produce the next generation of propulsion engines."

The Rocket Propulsion Establishment, set up in 1946, was for many years so secret that it was not marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

Rocket motors for British guided missiles were designed and developed at Westcott until the mid-1990s. The site, eventually taken over by British Aerospace, is now a business park which already houses a number of space technology companies.

The new centre, which will use some existing industry-owned facilities, will have a vacuum chamber to allow rocket testing at simulated high altitudes.

One industry stakeholder donating facilities is Moog-UK, which built the Leros 1b rocket engine that recently placed Nasa's Juno spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter. 

Among the centre's customers is expected to be British company Reaction Engines, which is developing a revolutionary air-breathing rocket called Sabre for powering reusable space planes. The European Space Agency, which has played a technical management role in the Sabre project since 2008, has announced at this week's Farnborough Air Show that it will invest EUR10m (£8m) in the engine's development.

"The new capability will allow cost-effective development and testing of even more impressive engines for interplanetary travel, as well as for the significant commercial telecommunications satellite market," said the UK Space Agency.

The centre should help the UK catch up with the US which has recently been excelling at rocket technology with companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin making several landings that pave the way for reusable rockets. Nasa also successfully tested a booster for the world’s most powerful rocket last month that could one day launch humans to Mars. 

Meanwhile, business secretary Sajid Javid today announced that government and industry have committed to providing almost £365m of funding for new aerospace technologies in the UK. The money is designed to maintain the UK’s reputation as one of the prominent hubs for aircraft design and manufacturing.

“Aerospace is a vitally important industry for the UK and it is one of our great manufacturing success stories, supporting over 230,000 jobs and generating over £30bn a year for the economy,” he said.

“We are number one in Europe and world leaders in innovation, design and manufacturing parts for planes.

“With government and industry investing nearly £4 billion by 2026, we are showing our continued commitment to this vital sector and our intention to keep the UK’s world-beating status.”

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