The US is steadily ahead of the UK in a new space race — mostly because American companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can use local launch sites. The UK has none, even though this country is the leading satellite manufacturer in Europe. In an attempt to give a second breath to the British space industry and offer clients end-to-end launch services, the UK plans on developing its spaceports. How has the progress been so far?
The benefits of British launch capabilities
Ambitious space plans aside, the UK’s plan to build its own spaceports has undeniable benefits for the country and its potential international launch clients.
- Convenient access to specific orbits. Out of seven currently proposed spaceports, six are located in Scotland and one — in Wales. Scotland’s northernmost location makes it a perfect site for northern trajectory launches. This offers a quick and cost-effective solution for launching spacecraft into polar and sun-synchronous orbits (SSO). Besides, Scotland has low population density, which means that spaceports will be located far from residential areas.
- No need to use resources of other countries. Right now, the UK relies on other countries’ spaceports to deliver its spacecraft to calculated orbits, which requires time and Building its own spaceports should solve this challenge for good. What’s even more important, spaceport construction could generate up to 4 billion pounds in revenue by 2030. This means that in the next decade, the UK Space Agency wants to increase its share in the international space market to 10% (as opposed to the current 6.5%).
- Full-range space service. Scotland’s space sector is thriving; only in Glasgow, over a hundred companies produce satellites, manufacture rockets and their parts. In fact, 20% of the British working in the space sector are physically employed in Scotland. This region’s talent pool and space manufacturing capabilities are enormous. Scotland already produces more satellites than any other area in Europe. The only thing lacking to offer an end-to-end launch service to all interested clients is its own spaceports.
Who stands behind the UK spaceports
Right now, several major companies are interested in UK launches and are ready to support spaceport projects. The top facilities most likely to be commissioned first are Cornwall, Shetland, and Sutherland. Other spaceports proposed in the UK include Snowdonia (the only project in Wales), North Uist, Prestwick, and Campbeltown. However, their construction chances still look slim, and none of the large international companies declared for these facilities.
Cornwall, one of the top contestants for the title of the first British spaceport, is also one of the few horizontal launch sites proposed in the UK. An American company Virgin Orbit, one of the few companies interested in horizontal launch tech, is going to become its main client. Virgin hopes to make its first commercial launch from Cornwall in 2022. The timeframe estimate looks realistic given that Cornwall already has some infrastructure necessary for launch — Goonhilly Earth Station and Newquay airport runway.
The latter, by the way, is the longest runway in the UK, which explains Virgin’s interest in the facility. Their modified Boeing plane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, will use the runway, but the rocket will be released from the plane’s wing when the aircraft reaches 35,000 feet altitude. This launch technology is more affordable, but it does not presuppose large payloads. Right now, Virgin’s Launcher can carry up to 200kg of cargo. Interestingly, Virgin Orbit is also working toward tourist space flights, but it is unclear if such launches will ever take place from Cornwall.
- Shetland is a vertical launch facility. An American giant Lockheed Martin recently announced its intention to launch from this spaceport. The UK government has already assigned a 23.5 million pound Pathfinder contract to this US launch provider, and the company hopes to execute as soon as 2022. The Pathfinder mission could become a breakthrough for the UK space sector — at least, according to the UK Space Agency representatives.
- Sutherland Space Hub is also a vertical launch site with Edinburgh-based Orbex
Space as its main resident. This company, originating from Denmark, has support from the UK Space Agency. As Warrington Worldwide mentioned in its news update, the startup received £5.5 million for launchpad construction, but there has been little progress with the spaceport construction so far. Besides, Sutherland spaceport faces serious opposition from local activists. Even though its developer, Highland and Islands Enterprise, conducted an environmental assessment, the environmentalists still filed over 400 objections to the local authorities.
Interestingly, Orbex was not the only company interested in launching from Sutherland. An American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin originally declared for the same facility but announced that it would be moving to Shetland after all. According to the official statement, this decision was made due to technical differences, meaning that different fuel types used by these companies imply building two different launchpads for Orbex and Lockheed rockets.
What are the ways to speed up the construction?
The new UKSA program has been around for several years now, but the construction permits are still pending approval. Legal applications aside, several steps can speed up UK spaceport construction:
- Granting funding to UK-based companies so that they stay in the UK. After all, it looks rather strange that out of three top spaceports, two are occupied by American companies.
- Conducting more thorough due diligence & analysing if the company can Orbex, in particular, has its fair share of financial problems, so it is unclear whether the company can live up to its launch promises.
- Providing stronger political support to spaceport development and ensuring quicker application permits from the authorities. Most top spaceports were proposed back in 2014, but as of 2021, none has a construction permit.
With a booming space industry and a new space race already on our doorstep, it’s critical to act fast. Spaceports might be the future of the UK space sector, so it’s worth putting more effort into their construction. So, speeding up the application permits should be the first thing on the authorities’ mind