Britain is the only country to have ever voluntarily given up its own independent space launch capability after having developed it. Here is how the UK is going to get it back.
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The UK is a world-leading centre for satellite manufacturing and data analysis, with one missing element: its own satellite launch capability. That is about to change.
From Spaceport Cornwall to the SaxaVord Spaceport on Shetland, private companies and entrepreneurs are leading the way to build the spaceports needed to position the UK as a centre for the satellite launch industry. The UK government’s goal is to grow the UK’s share of the global market for space from 5.1% to 10% by 2030, and in so doing, earn the UK’s new spaceports around £4.2 billion in launch revenues.
There are now more than 4,800 satellites in Earth’s orbit, 1,800 more than last year. Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone hopes to deploy nearly 15 times that number just for its satellite internet service.
It is important for us to be able to drive to the spaceport in a couple of hours rather than have a long logistical chain
The burgeoning industry has led to a rocket renaissance. In 2021, a total of 144 orbital launches took place, of which a record 133 were successful. Spaceports are now proposed in countries from the US to Indonesia.
“We are one of the biggest manufacturers of small satellites across the world, but we don’t have the capability to launch,” says Matthew Archer, commercial spaceflight director at the UK Space Agency. With demand growing rapidly, particularly for the launch of small satellites, there’s a real commercial opportunity, he says, with the government able to help industry grab a slice.
“This will give the UK an end-to-end supply chain, which we know from surveys is what customers want,” he says. “It is also about the UK to a degree developing strategic independence by having our own capability.”
The refusal of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to launch a Soyuz rocket carrying 36 OneWeb satellites due to Britain’s “hostile stance towards Russia” has highlighted the danger of relying on other nations to launch UK satellites. OneWeb is a global satellite internet access company in which the UK government has a large stake.
Chris Larmour is co-founder and CEO of Orbex, a UK-based low-cost launch company with a rocket factory in Forres, near Inverness. Orbex plans to launch a rocket up to 12 times a year from a single launchpad at the £17.3m Space Hub Sutherland in the far north of Scotland, providing the spaceport with vital income.
For Larmour, it’s vital that the UK has its own spaceports. “It is important for us to be able to drive to the spaceport in a couple of hours rather than have a long logistical chain that involves flying or shipping,” he says. “If there weren’t spaceports in the UK, we’d have to go overseas to Norway or Sweden or French Guiana to launch these rockets, and that destroys the cost model for a rocket of this scale.”
When the public hear the word “spaceport”, they may imagine something vast like Cape Canaveral. The UK’s proposed spaceports are much smaller. SaxaVord will have three launchpads on the Lamba Ness peninsula on Unst in Shetland and cost £43m, rising to £100m over five years.
While Sutherland will launch rockets only from a single partner, SaxaVord will generate revenue from several, including UK-based Skyrora, as well as Lockheed Martin and its rocket technology partner ABL Space Systems, which intend to launch the UK and Europe’s first vertical-launched satellite in 2022 for the government’s Pathfinder programme.
These sites plan to launch mini or micro rockets the old-fashioned way: vertically, like the rockets that blast off from Cape Canaveral, as opposed to horizontally, when they are launched from an aircraft.
They’re around the same size as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) rather than one of Elon Musk’s much longer Falcon 9 workhorses, because they are designed to carry small satellites and nanosatellites into the low Earth orbit needed for customers like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, as well as for Earth observation.
The northern latitudes of these spaceports make it easier to launch such satellites, which are intended for polar orbit. They can do so safely, surrounded as they are by the sea and sparsely populated areas.
At the other end of the country, Spaceport Cornwall plans to launch satellites horizontally up to 12 times a year by 2030 from rocket-carrying planes like Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747. The planes will take off and land on the existing runway at Newquay airport, alongside budget airlines ferrying tourists to and from the Cornish holiday resort.
What is the UK government’s role in establishing spaceports? Initially, it seemed set to select national champions from several competing bids. This competition was then cancelled in favour of a licensing system, through which many spaceports will be established, whether for horizontal or vertical launches.
The government supported this by putting up over £40m in grants, including £2.5m to help develop Sutherland, £5.5m to Orbex for a new rocket, £23.5m to Lockheed Martin to establish launch operations at SaxaVord and build and test a new space vehicle, and £7.5m to support a launch by Virgin Orbit from Spaceport Cornwall.
“The government sets a target for building a native launch industry and provides some encouraging funding to get that done,” says Larmour. “Not all the funding, but seed grants of a few million pounds, which is not a lot in space launch, but it’s enough to get companies moving and acts as a seal of approval that means investors take them seriously.”
This hands-off approach to spaceports led to the 2018 Space Industry Act and the launch of the UK’s spaceflight programme. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approves licences. Instead of a fixed-risk threshold for operators to meet, companies in the UK must demonstrate that they have considered the risks and have, as much as reasonably possible, taken appropriate precautions to minimise them.
“The UK government wants a balance between competition, access to US [customers], attracting known providers and building a UK launch capability,” says Archer. The US and UK governments signed a ground-breaking technology safeguards agreement to protect export-controlled technologies on American vehicles when flown from British spaceports.
The central government “owns” space policy. However, devolved governments like Scotland – as well as local councils – see spaceports and their ecosystems as opportunities for their communities and will offer help accordingly. Even a spaceport the size of Sutherland will provide about 40 jobs.
In the UK, the government views spaceports as a commercial endeavour. It believes the government’s job is to de-risk the initial investment and kickstart a market that might not otherwise exist to the same extent.
“There are opportunities for multiple spaceports, each with their own niche, but if there isn’t the demand, there will be consolidation,” Archer notes.
That said, the UK government isn’t willing to see the whole industry disappear.
“No,” Archer says. “That is one thing that we will continue to monitor and test. It is part of the regular conversation we have with Cornwall, Shetland, and Sutherland. We have a good deal of confidence in those projects. For the others, it is a developing business case that we are continuing to see.”
In the future, the government hasn’t ruled out the development of more powerful rockets that can lift heavier payloads into orbit, but a heavy launch capability would require a great deal more involvement.
“It’s one thing we have looked at and we continue to keep under review, but it’s a significant undertaking, and it’s not a commercial market,” Archer says. “For now, the strategic ambition isn’t there.”
In the end, building a spaceport is relatively simple; running one is not.
“I know the civil engineers won’t thank me for saying this, but the actual build is relatively simple,” says Scott Hammond, chief operating officer of SaxaVord Spaceport. It’s about building concrete launch pads and industrial sheds. The hard part is the global nature of the business.
“When we launch, we may have to monitor the rockets and look at all the safety aspects out to 5,000 nautical miles from Shetland. The drop zones for some of our stages are likely to be up by Greenland.”
The UK has never launched an orbital rocket from its home soil. That could change this year, potentially turning the country into a leading player in satellite launch and restoring a capability it gave up 60 years ago.