The Great British Space Race | place


In the next 12 months, the UK is expected to make a notable breakthrough in aerospace. For the first time a satellite will be launched into orbit from a launch pad in the UK.

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

One is based in Cornwall, where a Virgin Orbit jumbo jet is set to launch a LauncherOne rocket up to 35,000 feet, where it will then be fired to launch its satellite cargo into orbit. The first flight is planned for late summer.

In contrast, competing Scottish spaceports – one in Sutherland and one in Shetland – are preparing more direct routes, each announcing plans to launch two-stage rockets that could launch satellites around Earth in late autumn.

Proposals to build spaceports in Scotland at Campbeltown, Prestwick and North Uist were also announced, while Wales’ B2Space, based in Snowdonia, unveiled its own unusual method of getting into space: by balloon. There are plans to launch a helium-filled airship that will launch a missile to an altitude of more than 20 miles. The launcher is then fired and carries its satellite charge into orbit.

Some of the most remote parts of the British Isles will soon be reverberating with the sound of rocket and space launches, with the Cornish, Sutherland and Shetland programs being the most likely to see early hits in the next year.

Colibri program speech bubble from B2Space. Photo: B2Space

Each of these spaceports have emphasized the carbon-friendly, reusable aspects of their operations and have generally received cautious support from most of the locals. One example is the Sutherland Spaceport – which is based on 12 hectares in the middle of the Melness Crofters’ Estate on the A’Mhoine Peninsula in the northernmost part of mainland Scotland. Smallholders there graze cattle, catch fish and tend the land, but have welcomed the £ 17.5 million project that could soon see missiles being fired over their remote homes.

“This is not going to be the Cape Canaveral of the Highlands,” said Dorothy Pritchard, chairwoman of Melness Crofters’ Estate. “There will be only a few starts every year. But the spaceport will provide skilled jobs for young people, and that is urgently important here. The oil industry is going, young adults are going, and the population here is aging. A spaceport will give the region a huge boost by providing jobs for skilled, educated young people. “

Not everyone was enthusiastic. The local landowner, Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen, has claimed the spaceport would harm his plans to rewild the area. However, a judicial review earlier this year dismissed his request to freeze the project, and Povlsen has since announced that he will not appeal the decision.

Melissa Thorpe, Cornwall Spaceport Manager, with a Virgin Orbit spaceship.
Melissa Thorpe, Cornwall Spaceport Manager, with a Virgin Orbit spaceship. Photo: Jonny Weeks / The Guardian

The first launch of the Space Hub Sutherland is planned for late autumn, when a Prime rocket – built by Orbex, a British carrier rocket manufacturer – is due 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 is on the most remote corner of mainland Britain, although its location looks very busy compared to its Shetland rival SaxaVord Space Port, which is being built in Lamba Ness on Unst, Britain’s northernmost inhabited island, 400 miles north of Edinburgh . Its Pathfinder missiles will be shipped next year.

The site, like Sutherland’s, offers special advantages. Many satellites – especially Earth observation spaceships that study sea level fluctuations and changes in the ice cover – often fly in a polar orbit around the earth, on orbits that are inclined at 90 degrees to the equator. In orbits like this, the earth rotates beneath the spaceship as it sweeps over the poles, allowing it to monitor the entire planet below. Firing a missile northwards, safely over open seas and not over inhabited land, gives spaceports like that of Sutherland and SaxaVord a distinct advantage.

“We really need to focus on having as much flexibility as possible in our operations,” said Scott Hammond, Shetland spaceport operations director. “We have to be able to launch both fairly large satellites, say 500 kg, and small satellites up to 10 kg in order to attract as many different customers as possible – who have different requirements for the objects they want to bring into space – as possible. And that’s exactly what our missiles are designed for. “

Artist's impression of a Lockheed Martin Pathfinder missile launch.
Artist’s impression of a Lockheed Martin Pathfinder missile launch. Photo: Lockheed Martin / PA

The operators of the Cornwall spaceport are taking a different approach. Your satellite launcher will not involve fiery launches, but will instead be lifted into the air and attached to the underside of Cosmic Girl, a retrofitted 747 jet operated by Virgin Orbit that will take off from Newquay Airport. Virgin Orbit has already launched satellites over the Pacific in this way and plans to use this spaceport as a European base.

“Rather than having customers take their satellites to a rocket ramp to launch into space, Virgin Orbit is doing the opposite – by coming to a location near you to offer a launch,” said Melissa Thorpe, director of Spaceport Cornwall. “It has bases all over the world and Cornwall will be the center of its European operations. That will make it much easier for British satellite builders to get their spaceship into orbit. “

Overall, it is a remarkable set of launch plans with the UK focusing on the growing market for the launch of small satellites, typically weighing less than 500kg. “There were around 50 small satellite launches in 2012,” said Ian Annett, deputy chief officer of the UK space agency, which has played a key role in building the national spaceport network. “By 2019 there were more than 400 and the market continues to grow.

“It used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a kilo of material into orbit. However, commercial launchers – like Elon Musk’s SpaceX – have cut those costs to nearly $ 1,000. “

Such reductions open up low earth orbit for use by a wide range of users, from individual university departments to companies planning to enter global markets. Internet providers like OneWeb, for example, have announced that they will put hundreds of small satellites into orbit to create global broadband coverage. Others want to use it to investigate the effects of climate change, monitor disasters, manufacture alloys and drugs in weightlessness, test new communication technologies and implement many other applications. Small satellites range from the size of a stove to a phone and can be launched individually or in groups.

It remains to be seen whether the UK’s fledgling space launch industry can attract enough business to keep all seven planned spaceports launching these satellites. However, there is currently confidence in their prospects. “The market potential is immense and for the first time the UK has the opportunity to take advantage of this operation from its own shores,” said Annett.


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