The UK will begin licensing spaceflight this summer, paving the way for the launch of the first rockets from UK soil next year. Future UK spaceports and rocket builders hope to be the first to place satellites into orbit from Europe, but how many of them will survive?
The UK parliament is in the process of establishing regulations that will allow the country’s civil aviation authority to start issuing licenses to space ports, as well as rocket and satellite operators, by the end of August. The country, which left the European Union on January 31, 2020, has been encouraging commercial players to develop spaceflight capabilities on the islands since 2014 and initially hoped to see the first flights in 2020. It has officially launched its spaceflight program commercials, dubbed LaunchUK, in 2017.
“This is a pivotal moment for our spaceflight ambitions,” said UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. in a report Monday (May 24). “Since the start of the spaceflight program in 2017, we have made it clear that we want to be the first country to launch into orbit from Europe. Having these regulations in place puts us firmly on track to see the first UK launches take place from 2022.. “
Previously, the UK government, through the UK Space Agency, funded three future space ports and their rocket manufacturing partners. All three are still in the running, with more or less work ahead of them before they can start their first countdown.
Spaceport Cornwall ready to go
With its sandy beaches, craggy cliffs and sunny weather (at least for the UK), the former fishing village of Newquay in Cornwall (the southern tip of British land) has been an alluring tourist destination for decades . Soon it could add a new attraction. Newquay airport, located a few hundred meters from the Atlantic coast, plans to regularly host Virgin Orbit launches in early 2022.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, the airport’s emerging space division, told Space.com everything is ready to go to Newquay while waiting only for the license application and the success of Virgin Orbit’s test campaign at the United States.
“The legislation brought before parliament, and the licensing process that will flow from it, is basically the last piece of the puzzle that we need to launch early next year,” Thorpe said. “We are doing site upgrades, just to make it a little more efficient. The infrastructure for fueling and rocket handling has already been purchased, and we are currently building a satellite integration facility. , where the satellites will come from. and be integrated into the rocket. “
Aspiring to be the UK’s only horizontal spaceport (a spaceport where rocket-carrying planes, such as Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, take off and land), Spaceport Cornwall hopes to see up to five launches per year once everything is sorted out, Thorpe said.
Virgin orbit, which has deployed 10 cubesats in its successful demonstration flight in January, plans to operate from multiple airports around the world, providing flexible launch services to its customers. Using a conventional plane as the first stop, Virgin Orbit can take off from most conventional airports.
“We remain very happy to launch from Cornwall soon. Currently, we are planning a launch from Spaceport Cornwall as early as next year,” a Virgin Orbit spokesperson told Space.com in an email.
The company plans to carry out its next test flight in june, launching small satellites for the US Department of Defense and the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The company recently added Alcântara launch center in Brazil to the list of its future take-off locations.
Space Hub Sutherland facing legal challenge
Unlike Spaceport Cornwall, Sutherland Space Hub still has some hurdles to overcome. The vertical launch site (for rockets that take off from a vertical position, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or the European Ariane 5), is intended to be built in the pristine nature of the Moine Peninsula, in the extreme north of Scotland.
The spaceport, developed by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the government development agency responsible for this part of Scotland, secure building permit in August 2020. However, development has been called into question by Scotland’s largest landowner (and richest man) Anders Povlsen, who owns a neighboring estate. Povlsen, who cites environmental concerns as the reason for objections, has since invested in a rival company, the Shetland Space Center, which will be located on the Shetland Islands between northern Scotland and Norway.
This movement attracted widespread derision in local mediabecause there have been more environmental and wildlife protection issues around the Shetland Space Center project than around Sutherland. The Shetland Development has not yet obtained a building permit. The courts will rule on the validity of Povlsen’s concerns next month, HIE said in a statement.
In the meantime, detailed investigations have started on the 10.4 acres (4.2 hectares) (Melness Crofters Estate where the Sutherland launch site is to be located, the HIE said. See up to 12 launches per year). The results of the investigation will inform the construction of access roads and other space infrastructure, including the control center and the launch pad complex, HIE said in the statement.
The main partner of the spaceport is the local rocket manufacturer Orbex, based in Forres, a small town about 200 kilometers from the future spaceport. The company, which unveiled the prototype of its ecological Prime rocket two years ago, told Space.com it was on track to start launching next year “assuming legal steps are overcome.”
Shetland Space Center faces opposition
The Shetland Space Center submitted its planning request in January and is still awaiting a decision from the Shetland Islands Council, the local authority governing the islands.
The spaceport ultimately plans to operate three launch pads and recently drew Lockheed Martin, previously associated with Space Hub Sutherland, to move to the more distant Shetland base.
The future spaceport is located on Unst Island, 320 km north of the Moine Peninsula, where the Sutherland Space Center is located. Forming the northernmost part of British territory, Unst is home to a military radar station operated by the British Royal Air Force.
Although it does not yet have permission to establish the spaceport, the Shetland base is already providing facilities for European rocket builders to test their technology. German company HyImpulse Technologies, which is developing a micro-launcher equipped with a paraffin-powered motor (mostly candle wax) and liquid oxygen, recently completed a series of engine tests on the island. HyImpulse hopes to start regular orbital flights from Unst in 2023.
In November 2020, the Shetland Space Center received what it described as “a significant minority investment” of Wild Ventures Limited, a company owned by Anders Povlsen, which opposed Space Hub Sutherland.
However, the Scottish conservation agency NatureScot has expressed concerns that the Shetland spaceport could disrupt the habitats of protected bird species and insisted that operations should be limited during the breeding season. local media reported in March of this year. Subsequently, Historic Environment Scotland, a public body responsible for the protection of Scotland’s national heritage, rejected spaceport plans, saying it would harm the historic Skaw Radar Station, an important WWII national monument.
The black horse Black Arrow
While the eyes of most UK space enthusiasts are currently on Cornwall and its Scottish rivals, Black Arrow Space Technologies working quietly in the background on his plan to launch rockets from a reused raw bulk carrier off the coast of Wales. The company, led by industry veteran Paul Williams, is aiming for a later date to start operations and plans to attempt its inaugural launch in 2023. Ultimately, the company, based in Port Albert, Wales, hopes to start offering a mobile satellite launch. service that could be taken anywhere in the world. The concept is similar to that of Virgin Orbit, just without the need for a spaceport.
“We are in the process of converting a 200 meter long [650 feet], 35,000 tons [39,000 ton] “Dry bulk transporter that we’ll be using as a launch pad,” Williams told Space.com. “It will also house our clean rooms and our facilities where we will prepare the launcher.”
The company is developing a rocket capable of launching an 1,100 lb. (500 kilograms) of payload in low earth orbit but eventually wants to upgrade to a launcher capable of lifting 5.5 tonnes (5 metric tons), which is more than what other UK candidates expect to offer, according to Williams .
The rocket, whose engine could be unveiled later this year, will be fully reusable and run on environmentally friendly fuel.
“The message is that we will be the world’s first net zero launch provider,” said Williams. “We don’t use polluting propellants, we don’t make metallic materials that end up in the sea or the upper atmosphere, we don’t dig up patches of protected Scotland. Everything we do is aimed at being net zero. “
The company plans to take advantage of the fact that 14 UK Overseas Territories, including Bermuda, the Falkland Islands and Santa Helena, will all be governed by the same licensing regime that is currently put in place by the UK parliament. Williams expects “friendly” nations of the Commonwealth, the political association of the former British colonies, to be interested in launching from their waters as well.
“We have Singapore, we have Mauritius, we have Kenya – we have all these nations that are ready and willing to have a launch capability at their doorstep,” Williams said. “It makes a lot of sense.”