BREMEN, Germany — Actors engaged in the emerging European commercial launch sector are looking to European commercial spaceports to be established rather than shipping rockets farther afield.

In a panel discussion at the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 17, representatives from the launch sector and agencies outlined the key factors in spaceport selection, as well as the drivers, needs of customers and challenges in getting safely to orbit.

With the recent explosion in satellite constellation plans and proliferation of launcher concepts, spaceports are also necessary.

“We talk about spaceports now as a separate entity, when in the past it was an affiliation of an agency or large organization, with the relationship between the launcher and the spaceport having always been very intimate,” noted moderator Mike Curtis-Rouse of the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult. “We now see…a spaceport is actually a commercial venture.”

The ability to have a national spaceport depends on needs, with most nations not having the kind of throughput that sustain such facilities, said Ian Annett, Deputy CEO for programme delivery at the UK Space Agency, adding that the answer has to be a commercial spaceport. 

As for where and which spaceports could win out, a range of factors were identified, with one in particular stressed numerous times.

“Launch price is a key factor for small launch operators to keep total launch costs as low as possible. But launch window availability, possible orbit inclinations and facilities are other key selection criteria,” Raúl Verdú, CBDO and co-founder at Spanish launch startup PLD Space.

Derek Harris, business operations manager at UK launch company Skyrora, noted similar drivers, including the needs of the customer in terms of desired orbit, then cost and functionality. 

Annett adds that “critical spaceport selection criteria are cost, reliability, cost, convenience, cost and geography.”

Asked why more spaceports are needed specifically in Europe, rather than anywhere else, Annett responded that geography has a part to play, because with sensitive equipment, transit is an issue, in terms of intellectual property, red tape and time, but also potential damage. Establishing upstream services and a supply chain are also big considerations.

Harris says that the space industry is changing and there is also pressure to be sustainable. “You don’t have to go around the world to launch,” says Harris. Skyrora will conduct its first launch from Saxa Vord in the Shetland Islands*.

“There are more satellites built in Scotland than in California, so why would you want to send your sensitive equipment to the US or Kazakhstan for launch?” Annett adds. 

Arne Gausepohl, managing director at the German Offshore Spaceport Alliance which is seeking to establish maritime launch capabilities with a logistics base in Bremerhaven, agreed with these points, adding that new launch infrastructure brings aspects of sovereignty and independence to the European value chain.

“It’s difficult for some microlaunchers to bring their rockets to New Zealand, it takes a lot of effort. You can buy a rideshare, but the flexibility is not there.

Currently PLD Space is looking to launch its first Muira 5 rocket from Guiana Space Centre, while German startups Rocket Factory Augsburg and ISAR Aerospace have selected the Norwegian Andøya Spaceport. Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, northern Sweden, is developing its facilities to be capable of launching satellites into orbit as soon as 2022, but other possibilities are also emerging.

Yet challenges lie ahead for prospective European spaceports, including establishing high fidelity range control, attracting talent, developing expertise and experience and the high degree of coordination with relevant authorities.

“For our customers, it’s very important to have a spaceport with experience of dealing with these kinds of issues. Delays could be months,” says Verdú.

Air traffic and sea traffic pose challenges, admits Gausepohl, but adds that these issues are dealt with everyday. “One of the first calls when we started the project was to the authorities,” he says, underlining that clear procedures and permissions are needed, but the issue is not a showstopper. 

Gausepohl sees microlaunchers launching from spaceports in Europe as an exciting prospect for space over the next few years.

There are lots of questions about regulation, infrastructure and skills, Curtis-Rouse said in summary, but concluded by saying “the future is bright.”

Article updated at 8:32 a.m. Nov. 18 to state that Skyrora’s first launch will be from Saxa Vord. The article previously noted Sutherland spaceport as a prospective partner.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...