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Is the UK ‘Go for launch’?

Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall

A key component in the UK’s ambition to become a powerhouse in the space industry is to have indigenous launch capabilities. How well is progress going?

Space business in Britain appears to be booming. According to the UK Space Agency’s 2020-21 corporate plan, the sector currently makes “a substantial contribution to UK prosperity” by generating an income of £14.8bn, employing 42,000 people and supporting a further £300bn of economic activity through the use of satellite services.

Way back in 2010, the UK’s ‘Space Innovation and Growth Strategy’ set the ambitious target of increasing the nation’s share of the global space market to 10 per cent within a 20-year timeframe. How is it progressing, as we pass the halfway point? Not bad: in a global market estimated at some $400bn (£283bn), the UK’s dollar-equivalent figure of $20.5bn (£14.5bn) seems to be on track at 5.1 per cent.

Certainly, UK Space (the space trade association) believes that the country is “a leading player in the global space arena” and recent news stories - such as the government’s acquisition of satellite broadband company OneWeb and the Rolls Royce/UKSA study into nuclear-powered space exploration - appear to support this.

A key part of the government’s vision is its £50m investment in the UK Spaceflight Programme to kick-start small satellite launch and sub-orbital flight from UK spaceports. This investment, it says, will “create the conditions to enable the UK to be the first country in Europe to achieve commercial spaceflight”.

Spaceports are categorised as vertical or horizontal, the former launching conventional rockets from a launch pad, the latter using modified aircraft to ‘air-launch’ rockets at high altitude, effectively replacing the first stage of a conventional rocket. However, it remains to be seen which of several spaceport contenders will be first to see an actual launch. E&T offers a brief round-up of the options.

7. Spaceport Snowdonia, Llanbedr Airfield, Gwynedd, Wales

Although progress has been slow for the proposed spaceport in North Wales that would be operated by Snowdonia Aerospace Centre, a successful balloon test launch was conducted by Newport-based company B2Space as a feasibility demonstration in March 2020.

6. Campbeltown Airport, Scotland

In July 2014, Campbeltown Airport on the west coast of Scotland was one of eight locations across the UK shortlisted as a potential spaceport site. Bid-leader Discover Space UK signed MoUs in January 2017 with space technology firms QinetiQ and Telespazio VEGA UK, but little progress appears to have been made since then.

5. Western Isles, North Uist, Scotland

A site on the west coast of North Uist was also proposed in the initial shortlist, but no progress has been reported since members of the local population argued, in 2019, that the spaceport would threaten wildlife and tourism.

4. Prestwick Spaceport, Scotland

In November 2020, both the UK and Scottish governments made a commitment to invest over £80m in a “UK Space Centre of Excellence in Ayrshire” that will develop and support a wide range of aerospace and space activities, including a satellite launch site.

Spaceport development is being led by Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which is “continuing its efforts to make horizontal space launch from Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport a reality”. As with other proposed UK spaceports, Prestwick is awaiting an operator’s licence, which it says could lead to “the creation of 2,000 additional jobs and generate a further £320m for the UK economy”.

According to its website, Prestwick is working with a number of partners including small-satellite manufacturer Clyde Space and prospective launch provider Orbital Access, which is pitching its Orbital 500R spaceplane. However, beyond some attractive artwork, details of this are somewhat thin on the ground.

 

3. Spaceport Cornwall, Newquay, England

England’s only proposed spaceport is the ‘horizontal launch site’ at Cornwall Airport near Newquay. Spaceport Cornwall is a partnership between Cornwall Council, commercial launch operator Virgin Orbit and Goonhilly Earth Station and expects to deliver its first payload from the UK to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) “by 2022”.

In January 2021, Spaceport launch partner Virgin Orbit successfully launched 10 Nasa CubeSats to LEO using the company’s LauncherOne rocket, carried aloft by its modified 747-400 aircraft ‘Cosmic Girl’. The mission, which was deployed from Mojave Air and Space Port in California on 17 January, marked a positive juncture for UK space launch, simply because the launch technology is now considered proven.

2. Shetland Space Centre, Unst, Scotland

In February 2021, US space company Lockheed Martin announced that ABL Space Systems would conduct a launch in 2022 from the Shetland Space Centre to fulfil Lockheed’s £23.5m contract with the UK government for the so-called UK Pathfinder mission. Although ABL is based in El Segundo, California, the launch will be handled by its UK subsidiary.

The UK Pathfinder mission is designed to deploy an orbital manoeuvring vehicle or ‘space tug’, developed by Moog in the UK, that will subsequently release six ‘6U’ CubeSats (where ‘U’ represents the standard 10cm x 10cm x 10cm form factor).

Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said that the launch would put the UK “firmly on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination”.

Also in February, the German rocket maker HyImpulse Technologies declared its intention to begin engine testing and launching sub-orbital sounding rockets from Shetland this year, with a view to a maiden orbital flight in 2023.

1. Sutherland Spaceport, A’ Mhòine peninsula, Scotland

Sutherland Spaceport (also known as Space Hub Sutherland) was one of the first to be announced, and in August 2019 Highlands and Islands Enterprise signed a 75-year option to lease land for the spaceport. However, construction has yet to be approved and a commercial operator announced.

As of October 2020, Sutherland was expected to be used only to launch rockets manufactured by Orbital Express Launch Ltd (Orbex), based in Forres near Inverness. A UK government contract with Lockheed Martin was originally linked to Sutherland, but was moved to the Shetland Space Centre to avoid conflicts with Orbex.

Thanks in part to a £5.5m government grant, Orbex is developing a bio-propane-fuelled rocket called Prime that it hopes will have a significantly lower carbon impact than other comparable vehicles. The company is using 3D-printing technology to build the booster and is aiming for first stage reusability. A first launch is currently planned for 2022.

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