The Great British Space Race | Space

Britain is set to make a remarkable aerospace breakthrough over the next 12 months. For the first time, a satellite will be put into orbit from a launch pad in the United Kingdom.

It will be a historic moment – although it is not yet clear exactly where this great adventure will begin. A series of fledgling operations, supported by the British Space Agency, are now competing to be the first to launch a satellite from British soil.

One is based in Cornwall, where a Virgin Orbit jumbo jet is to carry a LauncherOne rocket to a height of 35,000 feet, from where it will then be fired to propel its cargo of satellites into orbit. The first flight is scheduled for the end of the summer.

By contrast, rival Scottish space ports – one in Sutherland and one in Shetland – are preparing more direct routes, each announcing plans to launch double-decker rockets that could place satellites around Earth in late autumn. .

In addition, proposals have been announced to build space ports in Scotland at Campbeltown, Prestwick and North Uist, while the B2Space of Wales, based in Snowdonia, has revealed its own unusual method of entering space: by ball. He plans to launch a helium-filled airship that will carry a rocket to a height of over 20 miles. The launcher will then be fired, carrying its cargo of satellites into orbit.

Some of the more remote parts of the British Isles will soon resonate with the sounds of rockets and space launches, with the Cornish, Sutherland and Shetland programs considered to be the most likely to see early success next year.

B2Space Colibri program balloon. Photography: B2Space

Each of these spaceports emphasized the ecological and reusable aspects of its operations and, in general, received the cautious support of most locals. One example is provided by Sutherland Spaceport – which is based on a 12-acre site in the middle of the Melness Crofters estate on the A’Mhoine Peninsula in the far north of mainland Scotland. Farmers there graze cattle, catch fish and tend the land, but have welcomed the £ 17.5million project which could soon see rockets launched at their remote homeland.

“It won’t be Cape Canaveral of the Highlands,” said Dorothy Pritchard, president of Melness Crofters’ Estate. “There will only be a few launches each year. But the spaceport will provide skilled jobs for young people, and that’s desperately important here. The oil industry is disappearing, young adults are leaving and the population here is aging. A spaceport will bring tremendous momentum to the region by providing jobs for skilled and educated youth. “

Not everyone was enthusiastic. Local landowner Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen has claimed the spaceport will undermine his plans to rewild the region. Earlier this year, however, a judicial review rejected an offer on his part to block the project, and Povlsen has since announced that he will not appeal the decision.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, with a Virgin Orbit spacecraft.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, with a Virgin Orbit spacecraft. Photograph: Jonny Weeks / The Guardian

Space Hub Sutherland’s first launch is slated for late fall when a Prime rocket – built by Orbex, a UK-based launch vehicle manufacturer – is expected to make its maiden flight from the spaceport. Orbex describes its Prime rocket as “one of the most advanced, low-carbon, high-performance micro-launch vehicles in the world.”

The spaceport sits in the most remote corner of mainland Britain, although its location looks positively lively compared to its Shetland rival, SaxaVord Space Port, which is under construction at Lamba Ness on Unst, l UK’s northernmost inhabited island, 400 miles north of Edinburgh. Its Pathfinder rockets will be delivered next year.

The site, like the one in Sutherland, offers special advantages. Many satellites – especially Earth-monitoring spacecraft that study sea level fluctuations and changes in the ice sheet – often fly in polar orbit around the Earth, on trajectories tilted 90 degrees to the surface. at the equator. In orbits like these, the Earth spins beneath the craft as it sweeps the poles, allowing it to monitor the entire planet below. So detonating a rocket northward, safely over open seas and not over populated land, gives spaceports such as Sutherland and SaxaVord a key advantage.

“What we really need to focus on is making sure we have as much flexibility as possible in our operations,” said Scott Hammond, Shetland Spaceport Operations Director. “We have to be able to launch quite large satellites, say 500 kg, as well as smaller ones, up to 10 kg, in order to attract as many different customers as possible – who will have different requirements for the objects they wish to put in space – as possible. And that is precisely what our rockets are designed for.

Artist's impression of a Lockheed Martin Pathfinder rocket launch.
Artist’s impression of a Lockheed Martin Pathfinder rocket launch. Photograph: Lockheed Martin / PA

A different approach is taken by the Cornwall spaceport operators. Their satellite launcher will not involve any fiery takeoffs, but will instead be airlifted, strapped to the underside of Cosmic Girl, a modernized 747 jet operated by Virgin Orbit that will take off from Newquay Airport. Virgin Orbit has already launched satellites this way, over the Pacific, and plans to use this spaceport as a European base.

“Instead of customers having to take their satellites onto a rocket platform to detonate them in space, Virgin Orbit is taking the opposite route – by going to a location near you to deliver a launch,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall. “It has bases all over the world and Cornwall will be the center of its European operations. This will make it much easier for British satellite builders to get their spacecraft into orbit. “

All in all, this is a striking set of launch plans, with Britain focusing on the growing market for launching small satellites, which typically weigh less than 500kg. “In 2012, there were around 50 small satellite launches,” said Ian Annett, deputy director general of the UK Space Agency, which was instrumental in building the country’s network of space ports. “In 2019, they were over 400 and the market continues to grow.

“It used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a kilogram of matter into orbit. However, commercial launch companies – like Elon Musk’s SpaceX – have reduced that cost to nearly $ 1,000. “

Such reductions open up low earth orbit for exploitation by a wide range of users, from single university departments to companies planning to exploit global markets. For example, Internet service providers such as OneWeb have announced plans to put hundreds of small satellites into orbit to generate global broadband coverage. Others want to use it to study the impacts of climate change, monitor disasters, make alloys and drugs in microgravity, test new communication technologies and implement a host of other applications. Small satellites range from the size of an oven to a telephone and can be launched individually or in clusters.

It remains to be seen whether the nascent UK space launch industry can attract enough companies to keep the proposed seven space ports busy launching these satellites. Right now, however, there is confidence in their prospects. “The market potential is immense, and Britain has a chance to exploit this operation from its own shores, for the first time,” Annett said.

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