Newquay airport runway

UK spaceport development boosted by National Space Strategy cash

The space race is back on, but now it’s not so much about putting people on the Moon as capturing a good-sized slice of the lucrative space market. A UK launch site could be the catalyst for that to happen.

The UK aims to capture 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030, the government’s National Space Strategy has pledged. To achieve that from a current share of 6.5 per cent, it primarily needs the momentum that only industry innovation can bring. But for industry to innovate it must be convinced the effort is worthwhile. That is where the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Satellite Applications Catapult are all significant drivers.

In particular, the UK Space Agency received an additional £50m in the government’s Industrial Strategy [November 2017] to progress the development of a spaceport on UK soil. UK Space Agency chief executive, Graham Turnock, says: “The ambition of our LaunchUK programme is for a home-grown market for spaceflight which will give businesses across the country access to exciting new opportunities. This £50m boost from the Industrial Strategy will help the UK Space Agency continue working with the industry to develop new technologies, infrastructure and services, to establish the UK as a world-leading destination for space launch.”

Ross James, commercial space director at the UK Space Agency, explains the proposition: “We’ve been doing a lot of work with partners about how we make sure we can expand the supply chain that will come about through launch activity. This isn’t just about having a rocket, and putting a satellite in space; there are substantial opportunities across industry, to be part of that supply chain. And having launch activity in the UK, gives us access to that.”

That £50m bonus is on top of the nearly £400m central funding that the UK Space Agency receives, and shows that there is significant political backing for both the space industry and the spaceport programme. Part of this is because of the market potential. As described in the OneWeb article in this issue, the number of spacecraft circling the globe is likely to multiply considerably in the coming years as satellite constellations provide the infrastructure for a truly interconnected world. Many of these will be classed as small satellites, which are envisaged to be the payload on the type of rocket that would be launched from a UK spaceport.

Larger satellites would probably still be launched elsewhere. There are well-​established sites for launching satellites that are measured in tonnes rather than kilograms and are expected to operate for years rather than months.

The market for small satellites is predicted by the UK Space Agency to reach around £10bn by 2030. Having a launch site would open this market up to the UK. James says: “You won’t have to piggy-back your CubeSat on somebody else’s rocket, and ship it off to Baikonur Cosmodrome or wherever, and be delayed because the main payload is being delayed. This would be dedicated to launching small satellites. There is a significant potential market for Europe, and the UK is in a very good place to exploit that market. So that’s why we’re focused on this.”

The UK is also geographically in a good place for this sort of venture. The nature of these satellites is that they are in lower orbits and the biggest concentrations need to be over the northern hemisphere. The UK is positioned ideally to deliver craft into these orbits cost-effectively.

‘Our investment in future engineers is critical. There isn’t a problem with a space launch at all. But if we really are going to leverage this, and industry is going to benefit from this, we need to make sure there are the new people coming through. It’s critical.’

Ross James, UK Space Agency

Encouraging and supporting innovation around the use of the data coming from space is the role of the Satellite Applications Catapult, based at Harwell. Although it also has a role in engaging partners in the space industry, it is really in the data applications where the Catapult has most potential and where this multi-billion-pound industry will derive most of its value. The Catapult and Space Agency work together closely to ensure that the UK space industry takes a coordinated approach to providing both the most useful data and ready access to it.

Meanwhile, the UK Space Agency will occupy itself in 2018 with working out how best to spend its £50m windfall. “It’s not just about having the launch vehicle and the spaceport,” says James. “It’s also about the supply chains. There is law and insurance, ground services, developing guidance, or looking at onsite activity and air support services activity. We want to make sure that we develop the supply chains for the benefit of UK industry.”

Some of the funds will be directed to the winning spaceport bid or bids – there may be one or more, although it seems unlikely that the quantity of launches will require more than one UK spaceport. Some will be spent on developing supply chains and some of that money will also be supporting outreach activity.

It is not the intention that the broader space programme is something that is stimulated by government investment. Instead it is an industry-driven approach and to a large extent it is down to industry to identify if it is a viable and commercial market for the future. With this in mind, the consortia bidding for the spaceport will have to demonstrate that they offer a solid business case for their particular venture, and the winner(s) will be those who can offer the biggest return for the British economy. The outcome is expected to be announced in the first half of 2018.

Each consortium is based around a spaceport and a vehicle operator. Twenty-six bids were submitted and the UK Space Agency is working with a small number of those with a view to identifying the partner of choice for the government. At least two of the consortia claim that they will be ready to launch in 2020, so it will be a tight timeline.

The chosen location, while being ready to fit into this timescale, should also be able to adapt as needs evolve. There could be a demand from tourism, satellite applications or high-​speed plane travel – that recurring notion of reaching Australia in two hours.

“We wouldn’t want to have a spaceport that is very fixed on one opportunity,” insists James. “There are substantial differences between a vertical spaceport – a rocket that just shoots up – and a horizontal spaceport. Obviously, you could have a rocket launched from the back of a 747, which is also more suitable to tourism. So that’s why we need to look at both horizontal and vertical options, to ensure that we choose what’s optimal for the UK.”

James would not be drawn on which consortia were leading the field at the time of writing. However, a handful of sites have made their interest publicly known from the outset. Both Glasgow Prestwick and Newquay in Cornwall would be suitable for horizontal launches, as would Machrihanish, near Campbeltown, which boasts Europe’s longest runway. These three, judging by their public profiles, would appear to be the leading contenders, although there are several other sites in Scotland, principally current or former RAF bases, and in Wales.

James explains: “By tradition, launching over sea is pretty critical, because in the unlikely event there is an issue, then you are mitigating the risk. Safety is the most important aspect. Limited impact on the surrounding population and things like that have to be very important, as well as having access to airspace. If your potential spaceport was below a major flight route from Europe to America that could be a significant problem.

“This is an open commercial market,” he concludes. “We will continue to work with any potential spaceport, or future vehicle operators, if the money is there and the business case stacks up. So this truly isn’t about backing a winner. It is about offering the support to the businesses with the strongest business case.”

Space Industry Bill progresses

Legislation

There is no point having a spaceport unless the site and launch vehicle can be licensed for operation. The Space Industry Bill is passing through Parliament at the moment and is expected to get Royal Assent in the coming months. It will enable the UK to license and regulate spaceflight activities as well as making sure that a spaceport operation will be safe and is fit for purpose.

The legislation will be aligned with the Outer Space Act and other international agreements to make sure that the UK can offer space-related services on a global basis.

Ross James of the UK Space Agency says: “Not only is the government supporting the development of industry, but supporting the development of the regulatory regime that will underpin it and, indeed, future innovation in space.”

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