British launch startups optimistic about continued government support

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FARNBOROUGH, England — Despite missing out in a U.K. government competition, early-stage launch vehicle developers in the country remain optimistic about their prospects and ability to win future government support.

The U.K. Space Agency awarded £23.5 million ($30.8 million) to Lockheed Martin and £5.5 million to Orbex July 16 to set up operations at a new spaceport the government will establish in northern Scotland. Orbex, a British-headquartered company, plans to use the funding to help develop its Prime small launch vehicle while Lockheed Martin will use the funding to bring in a vehicle, likely Rocket Lab’s Electron, to the spaceport.

Other companies sought a piece of £50 million in launch-related funding offered by the space agency. However, some of those firms said during a panel discussion at a “LaunchUK” event held by the space agency July 18 at the Farnborough International Airshow that they were happy the government was paying some level of attention to the subject.

“It’s a tremendous beginning for U.K. launch, but there’s a lot more to do, I think,” said Robin Hague, lead engineer at Skyrora.

Skyrora is a British-based company with a research and development center in Ukraine that is developing a small launch vehicle. The company links the vehicle’s heritage to Black Arrow, Britain’s last orbital launch vehicle, by noting it uses the same combination of kerosene and hydrogen peroxide propellants. However, Skyrora’s vehicle does use more modern technologies, like additive manufacturing of key components.

A suborbital test flight of Skyrora’s launch vehicle is now planned for the summer of 2019, at a site to be determined in the U.K. “Certainly at some point next year,” Hague said. Orbital launches are planned to begin in 2021.

B2Space is another British small launch vehicle startup developing a balloon-launched system. In that concept, a balloon would carry a rocket to an altitude of 37 kilometers and then launch it, allowing it to avoid most of the atmospheric drag encountered by rockets launched from the ground or even aircraft at lower altitudes.

“That enables us to have a lighter structural design,” said Valentin Canales, co-founder and technical director of B2Space. “Having no aerodynamic constraints means we can have any fairing shape that we want.”

B2Space is still in the early phases of development, focusing for now on software to determine the best launch location for the balloon given atmospheric conditions as well as development of the launch platform, protecting the rocket from changing thermal conditions as well as being able to orient it into the right position for launch.

“There is clear support from the U.K. program and the U.K. Space Agency to make these things happen,” he said, adding he was happy with the support his company had received so far. “But, our feeling as entrepreneurs is that we always want to make it go faster.”

Orbital Access, another launch startup based in the U.K., has ambitious plans for launch systems that start with a vehicle launched from an aircraft and leading, perhaps 20 or more years from now, with a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane.

Stuart McIntyre, chief executive of Orbital Access, downplayed the significant technological issues that approach has. “Our challenges are not so much what are the technologies. There are many options in terms of propulsion. There are many options in terms of technological building blocks,” he said. “But it really is a question of how to put them together to create a truly commercial service.”

He said he’s hoping the government will provide support beyond funding, such as making it easier to sell launch services to foreign customers. “I think the funding situation on the U.K., the technical support, the encouragement to push the boundaries on technological innovation is very welcome,” he said. “There’s a major political task that needs to be taken on and delivered in terms of enabling that export opportunity.”

Reaction Engines has been working for many years on an air-breathing engine called Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) that could be used for hypersonic vehicles or spaceplanes. The company proposed using the engine for a spaceplane called Skylon, but that vehicle remains only a concept at this time.

Even development of SABRE has taken far longer than the company expected. “Many companies, I think, would have given up a long time ago,” said Mark Wood, chief operating officer and engineering director of Reaction Engines. He added, though, that the company has been making progress with one key element of the engine, the heat exchanger.

Reaction Engines has grown significantly, thanks to investment from BAE Systems and Boeing, as well as support from government agencies in the U.K., the European Space Agency and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Much of that interest has been focused on SABRE’s use in hypersonic, rather than space launch, applications.

Wood noted that support included a grant from the U.K. Space Agency. “Clearly there is a lot of support,” he said. “We’re in a good position, but obviously there’s more to do.”

Claire Barcham, commercial space director at the U.K. Space Agency, said that about a third of the £50 million earmarked for the launch initiative, which includes the funding for Lockheed Martin and Orbex as well as the Scottish spaceport and support for potential horizontal launch sites, remains unspent.

“We’re looking forward to making further announcements about how we’ll use the remainder of our funding to really ensure development of a diverse market in the U.K.,” she said, adding she was opening to talking with industry on the best way to use those funds.

Amid the discussion of government support, though, one speaker reminded the audience of the intent to develop commercial systems. “There are three reasons why we should be involved with a spaceport, and they are money, money and money,” said Roy Kirk of the Highlands and Island Enterprise, managing the spaceport project in northern Scotland. “If this doesn’t make money, we shouldn’t be doing it. This is a commercial opportunity.”