rocket launching

Rocket launches from British soil and space tourism endorsed by UK science minister Johnson

Building the capability to launch satellites into orbit from Britain should be an “essential pillar” of the government’s new industrial strategy, the science minister has said as he opened a UK conference for potential spaceport operators and launch companies.

Speaking at today's Launch UK event at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, science minister Jo Johnson said, “We have never launched anything into orbit from UK soil, but we are confident that in backing you - the businesses and companies in this room - 2020 will see the first launches from British soil.”

Among those in the room were spaceport brokers, academics interested in the future of mining on asteroids and firms offering logistical support to would-be participants in what Johnson called “the new space age”.

The UK government is hoping to steal a march on the rest of Europe and, in the process, give local economies a shot in the arm. The Hebrides and Cornwall are viewed as potential locations from which rockets could blast off into space and the UK's business-friendly image and existing technology supply chains are seen as potential lures for companies already working in this field overseas.

A draft UK Spaceflight Bill was today laid before Parliament and at least £10 million in public grant funding is being made available for research and development and to help firms compile a business case, with 28 April 2017 fixed as the deadline by which all bids must be in.

Rebecca Evernden, director of policy at the UK Space Agency, insisted the money would not amount to a government subsidy as it would not be used for “concrete” or kit, but for facilitating joint working between the spaceports and the launch operators. Others said it would go towards navigating the likely bureaucratic minefield around carrying out such operations.

The agency’s commercial space director, Ross James, told attendees the government was “agnostic about whether it’s a horizontal launch or a vertical launch” and he said there could even be several UK spaceports in existence in the near future.

“It could be a sea-based platform,” he added.

Vertical launches have traditionally been used for rockets carrying satellites, but horizontal launches – involving a rocket piggybacking on a jet plane – are favoured by many companies wishing to carry tourists above the Earth's atmosphere.

The UK government has openly declared space tourism to be a potential part of its strategy. However, Tommaso Sgobba, the former head of safety at the European Space Agency, told E&T Magazine he was sceptical about the business case for this.

“The market for it would be - at maximum - as big as the market for Concorde supersonic flights across the Atlantic,” he warned, adding, “And look what happened to Concorde.”

Sceptics also point out that the £10 million in government grant funding is pitiful compared with the hundreds of millions, or billions, that would be required to actually build the necessary infrastructure and launch space rockets.

The government stresses scientists could be among astronauts departing Earth from the UK because controlled conditions in space are ideal for studying microbiology.

Telecommunications firms are also obvious players, but Alan Webb, from launch brokerage Commercial Space Technologies Ltd, said UK services would struggle to compete with existing “rideshare” arrangements in Russia  and elsewhere in the world. These involve satellites essentially hitching a lift on rockets.

“It’s a really subtle market that the UK spaceport would be going for,” said Webb. “It can’t compete directly with rideshare. It seems it would be for customers who can afford a slight premium for the benefit of dictating their own launch parameters.”

The only existing UK legislation around space travel is the Outer Space Act 1986, but there is copious civil aviation law that will need to be navigated by those drawing up new rules and regulations.

For the ease of companies, the UK government is intending to create a simple online portal bringing together the functions of three regulators - the Health and Safety Executive, UK Space Agency and Civil Aviation Authority.

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