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Can the United Kingdom be a Gateway to Space?

Space Race,UK,Europe
Jonathan O’Callaghan
Tristan Hanks
August 3, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

The UK is known for a lot of things. The Queen, sure. Fish and chips, you bet.

But what about rockets that can launch to space? If all goes to plan, just over a year from now, Brits could be sipping British tea watching a British rocket launch to space — with a British satellite on board of course — from good ol’ Blighty. To date the UK has held the rather unusual distinction of being the only nation in the world to have developed and then halted the capability to launch rockets, after a singular orbital flight of the Black Arrow rocket in 1971. Now, it’s hoping to get back in the game, before anyone else in Europe.

“This century it’s highly likely we’ll see people go to Mars, the exploration and growth of the Earth orbital economy, mining on the Moon for ice, and missions to the asteroid belt,” says Michael Curtis-Rouse, the Head of Manufacturing for Space from the UK-based firm Satellite Applications Catapult. “We’re in a whole new dawn of a very different space age driven by commercialization. The UK [wants to be] part of that journey.”

The UK is already renowned for its satellite-building capabilities. It currently has a six percent share of the global space economy, and hopes to raise that to ten percent by 2030. But in the last decade, the Government began to explore the possibility of developing spaceports in the UK that could launch rockets to space too, a capability no country in geographical Europe currently possesses.

In July 2018 they chose an expanse of peat bog in Sutherland, at the northernmost tip of the mainland UK in Scotland, as the site for the UK’s first vertical orbital rocket launch site. Since then several other potential spaceports have also sprung up, some also for vertical launch — such as the Shetland Space Centre, backed by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin — and others such as Spaceport Cornwall for horizontal launch companies like Virgin Orbit.

The goal is to begin launches as soon as 2022 — using much smaller rockets than counterparts in, say, Cape Canaveral in Florida, that can take thousands of kilograms to orbit. Instead, the UK will focus on much smaller launchers, a quarter the size or so of SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket and other vehicles of that ilk, to take equally small satellites into space, similar to vehicles like Rocket Lab’s 55-foot-tall Electron rocket that currently flies from New Zealand.

The reasons for doing so are several-fold. Having its own launch capability would mean the UK no longer needed to necessarily rely on other countries to reach space. “To have sovereign launch capability here in the UK will be game-changing for a lot of satellite companies,” says Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall.

The UK is also well-suited to reach polar orbit, in particular what’s called a Sun-synchronous orbit, where satellites fly over the same location on Earth at the same time every day, a useful feature for imaging and weather satellites, with rockets able to launch north over the North Sea.

The geographical advantage is useful, too. “Nothing that Europe builds is launched to orbit from Europe because they don’t have a place [to launch],” says YouTuber and industry expert Scott Manley. “Scotland is well situated for this. Proximity to a launch site is a very valuable feature and there’s a lot of companies in Europe that might want to launch something from here.”

Leading the charge to begin vertical launches from the UK are two companies based in Scotland, Orbex and Skyrora. The former, based in Forres near the city of Inverness, emerged from stealth mode in 2018 to unveil plans for its two-stage Prime rocket, 62 feet tall, that would launch from Sutherland, capable of carrying about 150 kilograms to orbit.

The company showed the physical upper stage of its rocket at an event in February 2019, but otherwise has shied away from the limelight as it targets an inaugural launch from Sutherland by the end of 2022, keeping many details – including the planned reusability of the rocket’s first stage – under wraps for now.

“I think people would be shocked if they knew where we really were,” says Chris Larmour, Orbex CEO. “We’ve raised a lot of public and private money to do this, and people expect that we’re going to deliver. We are working towards fulfilling that expectation, and the least of our concerns is fame.”

Nonetheless, Orbex has put down a marker of intent. It has announced six signed contracts for launch, and they are in the process of expanding their rocket-building factory in Forres to 10,000 square meters, with plans to build 30 or 40 rockets per year. “That’s nearly a €30 million [$36 million] investment there,” says Larmour.

Skyrora, headquartered in Edinburgh, has taken a markedly different approach. The company has been very openly testing incrementally larger and larger rockets on short high-altitude hops, as it moves towards ultimately launching its three-stage Skyrora XL rocket to orbit, some 75 feet tall and capable of carrying up to 315 kilograms to orbit, by “the back-end of next year,” says Alan Thompson, Head of Government Affairs at Skyrora. The company hopes to reach space on a suborbital flight with a smaller rocket, the Skylark L, later in 2021.

While Orbex and Skyrora say they are not necessarily in a race to launch first — at least publicly — there is a sense that getting to market early could be key for smallsat launchers like these. Already there is competition for contracts with Rocket Lab, Astra in the US, Virgin Orbit of course, and other emerging players like Relativity Space in the US. “You’re not going to have hundreds of small launchers,” says Manny Shar, Head of Analytics at space consultancy firm Bryce Space and Technology. “You’re going to have three to five, realistically.”  

It has not all been smooth sailing, however. Skyrora, which Thompson says has about 30 letters of intent for launch contracts, has yet to finalize where it will actually launch its rockets from, with Orbex currently the only launch provider contracted to fly from Sutherland. One option is the Shetland Space Centre, where the US company ABL Space Systems also hopes to launch from, but this was dealt a blow recently after the proposal to construct the launch site was refused, with appeals ongoing.

“We have an ambition to be the first to launch from the UK,” says Thompson.

Although he notes the company has also examined other launch possibilities in locations such as Norway — while the company has already performed some of its previous tests in Iceland. Germany, too, hopes to begin launches in the near-future, as other nations in Europe race to reach space, a race the UK hopes to win.

In Sutherland, an ongoing legal battle with a local Danish billionaire has slowed the project. Anders Povlsen, who has somewhat hypocritically invested more than $1 million in the rival Shetland Space Centre through his company Wildland Ltd, has opposed the construction of the Sutherland launch site (which would be situated not far from his house) on environmental grounds, despite it having a very small footprint, just 13 acres of the more than 12,000 acres of where it would be situated, and likely with no more than 12 launches per year, each lasting no more than a few minutes. A judicial review on his legal challenge is expected imminently.

However, the vast majority of the locals disagree with Povlsen and are in favour of the launch site, having seen many opportunities for jobs in the area diminish. “We really just want a sustainable future for our communities, and jobs for young people,” says Dorothy Pritchard, the chairperson of the local Melness Crofter's Estate, a group of crofters who leased to the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in Scotland to build the site.

Yet progress continues, with hopes that construction can begin at Sutherland by the end of the year, and launches can begin as soon as late 2022. As for Spaceport Cornwall, Virgin Orbit could feasibly launch from there as soon as summer 2022, with other unnamed companies also said to be interested in launches from this location.

One way or the other, whether it’s the southernly beaches of Cornwall or the windy highlands of Scotland, it is looking increasingly likely that the UK might start launching rockets in the next year or two. And for a relatively small island, that’s no small feat.

“I’m optimistic [it will happen],” says Shar. “There are still challenges, but with the right government support and industry getting stuck in, the capability is there.”

See you on launch day. Mine’s a coffee, mind.

Jonathan O’Callaghan
Tristan Hanks
August 3, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)