Broadcast | Putting the UK back in the launch business

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2022 continues to be a year full of uncertainties, Events in Ukraine create global instability and significant uncertainties in European countries.

This will undoubtedly cast a long shadow over the coming year. But, in addition to supporting our Eastern European neighbors as they go through a tragic conflict, 2022 will help us bounce back from the pandemic in better shape than Queen Elizabeth II. It’s an important year in many other ways for the UK as we hope to celebrate and kick off Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. Countdown to first small satellite launch from UK soil.

The UK Space Agency is leading the UK’s spaceflight programme, which began in 2018 to position the UK as a leading destination for small satellite launch and to be the first country in Europe to develop this capability.

The UK space industry already has a global reputation for designing and building spacecraft, processing satellite data, developing secure infrastructure and operations centres, and pushing the boundaries of space science. With the notable exception of the short-lived Black Arrow program, which was discontinued in 1971, we have so far left the complex, expensive, and largely government-sponsored start-up to others.

So what has changed? SpaceNews readers will be aware of the relentless drive towards further commercialization and commodification of space. The past decade has seen innovation at a pace not witnessed since the original space race half a century ago, paired with strong private investment that probably outperformed many other industries. Small satellites with ready-to-use components do things that London bus-size satellites today would have difficulty doing in the not too distant past. Remarkable new constellations such as OneWeb and Starlink are redefining global connectivity and the global communications market.

Entrepreneurs fly into space with rockets designed by their own companies. And as the market for innovative, agile micro-launchers emerges, with established players offering cheaper access to space, the cost of launch (and satellites) continues to drop, providing increased opportunities for broader science, climate change, human effort and societal development.

The UK Space Agency, supported by the UK Government, supported the commercial launch, providing an opportunity to capitalize on these developments. As a world leader in small satellite manufacturing home to companies like SSTL, AAC Clyde Space and Spire Global, the potential for timely and reliable small satellite launches from the UK is clear. Years of work to realize this potential will bear fruit in a matter of months, making the UK the first country to launch in Europe.

Financing and support

The UK Space Agency is still a relatively young organisation. Founded in 2010, the company was born in the new space age with a commercial mindset and focus on catalyzing investment in a growing space industry. Over the last four years, we have provided £40m ($54m) of industry grant funding as well as regional investment to increase the UK’s spaceflight capacity and create and enable the conditions for our first launches from the UK. operate competitively in the global launch market.

There are currently seven potential UK spaceports, three of which will soon host launches and support a mix of British and American launch technology.

Following its successful ‘Above the Clouds’ mission in January, Virgin Orbit is aiming for its first UK launch this summer from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, less than 40 miles from Carbis Bay, where the G7 leaders met last June. The UK Space Agency has awarded Virgin Orbit £7.35 million ($10 million) to support its operations in Cornwall, while lent one of the Royal Air Force test pilots, Matthew Stannard, to Virgin Orbit. what it takes to successfully launch small satellites from the air.

Near Inverness, Scotland, launch vehicle manufacturer Orbex is targeting the initial launch from Space Hub Sutherland on Scotland’s north coast. The UK Space Agency has invested £5.5 million ($7.2 million) and supported a successful application for European Space Agency funding in the development of Orbex’s Prime launch vehicle, a vertical launch rocket powered by low-carbon fuel (bio-propane). Orbex has also recently built the first orbital launch capable launch platform to be built in the UK in over 50 years, allowing it to begin testing launch procedures before the first launch.

Also in Scotland, Lockheed Martin and ABL Space Systems are developing a vertical launch capability from the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands, 110 miles north of the Scottish mainland.

ABL’s final test anomaly is being investigated by the company, but Lockheed Martin, ABL and SaxaVord Spaceport are confident their plans will also achieve the first launch within the next year. These plans were supported by an investment of £23.5 million ($31 million) in two separate grants to Lockheed Martin to establish launch operations at SaxaVord Spaceport and for the research and development, construction and flight demonstration of the orbital maneuverer. SaxaVord Spaceport also supports skills and jobs in Shetland by operating a commercial ground station and providing test facilities for launch vehicle manufacturers.

British company Skyrora, which is currently developing the Skyrora XL orbital launch vehicle, also plans to operate from SaxaVord Spaceport. In March 2021, Edinburgh-based Skyrora announced that the UK’s European Space Agency’s (ESA) Boost! attempt.

While initial launches will be extremely exciting, all these investments are designed as a catalyst for the long-term growth of the UK’s nascent launch market. We are working closely and constructively with relevant companies and spaceports to support our shared goals by developing a complementary set of horizontal and vertical launch proposals for local and international customers.

Start licensing and issuing

Anyone in the industry will tell you that launching is tough – orbital launching is even harder. Decades of experience in many nations have improved designs and safety criteria, but failures still occur, particularly in the early life of launch vehicles. While many operators today can learn quickly from both successful and unsuccessful launches, it is critical that we strike the right balance between regulations that keep people and the environment safe while offering flexibility, and our ability to operate while keeping risks as low as reasonably practicable. (ALARP).

In July last year, the Space Industry Act 2018 and accompanying regulation came into effect to allow launches from the UK from 2022. The Civil Aviation Authority (the US equivalent of the FAA) has been developed with the flexibility to support the most modern space regulations and pace of innovation in the world.

Safety is paramount, environmental protection is key and innovation in the industry should be supported. The UK’s approach therefore avoids being overly prescriptive and complies with the ALARP principle. Spaceports and operators must demonstrate that risks are managed to an acceptable level, but exactly how they do this is up to them.

In the long term this will support the growth of a safe, sustainable UK launch industry, but in the short term this will mean a departure from the more familiar US system for some operators. Both the UK Space Agency and the Civil Aviation Authority are supporting the industry through the new regulatory process and we expect the first launch licenses to be issued within a few months.

Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, there were still five years until Sputnik was launched, and the idea of ​​a human a month was little more than a dream. In 2022, Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee year, the global space industry is booming and the UK is on track to usher in a new era as a spaceship nation with a clear National Space Strategy.

First launches from Cornwall and Scotland will be key moments, but these are just the beginning. The UK Space Agency will continue to lead the way in making the UK a more meaningful actor in space, working closely with government departments, our vibrant commercial space industry and international partners to support our national and global goals.


Ian Annett is Deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency.

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