Lockheed Martin yet to select vehicle to launch from British spaceport

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FARNBOROUGH, England — While Lockheed Martin continues to suggest it will use Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket at a Scottish launch site announced at the beginning of this week, company officials said July 17 they have yet to formally select a vehicle to fly at the site.

The U.K. Space Agency awarded $31 million to Lockheed Martin July 17 to establish operations from a new launch site in Sutherland, Scotland, that the agency announced a day earlier. That funding will also go towards development of an upper stage, called the Small Launch Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle, designed to place up to six cubesats into orbit.

Neither the agency’s announcement nor a separate press release, though, identified the launch vehicle that Lockheed Martin would use. At a press conference during the Farnborough International Airshow here July 17, company and government officials were similarly coy about the identity of the vehicle.

“They offered tried and tested technology, an established launch vehicle,” said Mike Taylor, spaceflight program director at the U.K. Space Agency, in remarks discussing why the company received the largest award of any company proposing launch or spaceport development in the country.

“We’ll use an affordable, flight-proven commercial launcher built specifically for small satellites,” said Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s U.K. country executive for space, at the briefing. “We’ll have more details on the launcher in the very near future.”

Most industry observers believe that vehicle is Rocket Lab’s Electron. The rocket is a commercially developed vehicle designed for small satellites and performed its first successful launch in January. Moreover, Lockheed Martin made a strategic investment in Rocket Lab in 2015.

However, Lockheed Martin officials declined to confirm at the briefing it planned to use Electron. “We just announced yesterday, so there are a lot of details to fill in,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s space business. “Now that we have announced, we can go ahead and go finish up a lot of our deliberations.”

Ambrose appeared to leave open the door to considering alternative vehicles to launch from Scotland. “It’s very public that we’re a strategic investor in Rocket Lab,” he said. “It’s also interesting how, just in 24 hours, we’ve had a lot of interest.”

“We’re working across all of our supply chains,” he said later when asked if Lockheed was considering launch vehicles other than the Electron. “We have a lot of details to work out across the board.”

Both Ambrose and Wood, though, indicated that Rocket Lab’s Electron is the company’s preferred choice to use from the site. “We’ve worked very close with that particular organization. We understand their launch vehicle very well,” Wood said. “We are a strategic investor in Rocket Lab and that’s where we’re focusing at the moment.”

Their comments came several hours after Rocket Lab, in a statement, said the company was “evaluating launch opportunities” from the Scottish site, but did not commit to using the spaceport.

“Electron is well-positioned to be the first orbital rocket launched from U.K. soil,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in the statement. “We’re excited to review the opportunity to develop a launch service to support the U.K.’s space industry’s growth.”

Lockheed Martin executives said at the briefing that, whatever vehicle they select to launch from the Scottish spaceport, they expect a steady cadence of missions once operations are up and running. “We envisage, from kind of a steady state, about 10 launches a year,” Wood said. “Obviously we have the ability to go to a higher cadence, and we’ve sized the organization for slightly less than that as well.”

One potential use of the spaceport is for responsive launches of military satellites. “A military capability perspective that I am interested in is the ability to do responsive space launch,” said Air Vice-Marshal Simon “Rocky” Rochelle, chief of staff capability and development at the Royal Air Force. The details of such a capability are still being worked out, he said, but could include launches of off-the-shelf satellites on 72 hours’ notice.

That capability, he added, could be shared among allies, such as the “Five Eyes” partnership of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. “We do all sorts of things together,” he said, adding that such cooperation could help allies “control that space domain rather than being threatened.”

Lockheed Martin hopes to start launching from the spaceport as soon as 2020, a timeline that depends on progress in winning regulatory approvals for both building the spaceport and launching from it. “From our point of view, we’re very comfortable with a 2020 schedule,” said Wood. “We understand it’s challenging.”