Op-ed | Putting Britain back in the business of launch
2022 continues to be a year full of uncertainty, with events in Ukraine creating global instability and considerable uncertainty within European nations.
This will no doubt cast a long shadow over the year ahead. But alongside supporting our Eastern European neighbors as they go through a tragic conflict, 2022 is a landmark year for the United Kingdom in many other ways, as we hope to build back better from the pandemic, celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and begin the countdown to the first small satellite launch from UK soil.
The UK Space Agency leads the UK’s spaceflight program, which kicked off in 2018 to position the UK as a leading destination for small satellite launch and be the first country in Europe to develop this capability.
The UK space sector already has a global reputation for designing and building spacecraft, crunching satellite data, developing secure infrastructure and operations centers and pushing the frontiers of space science. With the notable exception of the short-lived Black Arrow program that was stopped in 1971, until now we have left the complex, expensive and largely state-backed business of launch to others.
So, what has changed? Readers of SpaceNews will be aware of the inexorable drive towards the greater commercialization and commoditization of space. The past decade has arguably seen innovation at a pace not witnessed since the original space race half a century ago, matched by strong private investment that appears to have outperformed many other sectors. Small satellites with off-the-shelf components do things today that satellites the size of a London bus would have struggled to do in the not-too-distant past. Remarkable new constellations like OneWeb and Starlink are redefining global connectivity and the market for global communications.
Entrepreneurs are flying into space on rockets designed by their own companies. And, as the innovative, agile micro launcher market has emerged alongside established players offering cheaper access to space, the cost of launch (and satellites) continues to come down and offers increasing opportunities to broader science, climate change, human endeavor and societal improvement.
The UK Space Agency, supported by the UK Government, recognized an opportunity to take advantage of these developments by backing commercial launch. 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 launch from the UK is clear. Years of work to realize this potential will come to fruition in a matter of months and will ensure the UK is the first country to launch in Europe.
Funding and support
The UK Space Agency is still a relatively young organization. Founded in 2010, it was born in the new space age with a commercial mindset and a focus on catalyzing investment into a growing space sector. Over the past four years, we have provided £40 million ($54 million) in industry grant funding, alongside regional investment, to grow the UK’s spaceflight capability and establish the conditions needed to achieve our first-ever launches from the UK and enable them to operate competitively on the global launch market.
There are currently seven potential UK spaceports, three of which are on track to host launches soon, supporting a mix of British and American launch technology.
After its successful ‘Above the clouds’ mission in January, Virgin Orbit is targeting its first UK launch this summer from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, less than 40 miles from Carbis Bay, where G7 leaders gathered last June. The UK Space Agency awarded £7.35 million ($10 million) to Virgin Orbit to support its operations in Cornwall, while the Royal Air Force loaned one of its test pilots, Matthew Stannard, to Virgin Orbit in order to gain valuable knowledge and operational experience of what it takes to successfully air-launch small satellites.
Near Inverness, Scotland, the launch vehicle manufacturer Orbex is targeting its first launch from Space Hub Sutherland, on the north coast of Scotland. The UK Space Agency 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 that runs on low carbon fuel (bio-propane). Orbex has also recently constructed the first launch platform to be built in the UK in over 50 years that is capable of an orbit launch, allowing it to begin testing launch procedures in advance of the first launch.
Also in Scotland, Lockheed Martin and ABL Space Systems are developing a vertical launch capability from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands, 110 miles north of the Scottish mainland.
ABL’s recent test anomaly is being investigated by the company, but Lockheed Martin, ABL and SaxaVord Spaceport remain confident that their plans will also deliver the first launch within the next year. These plans have been supported by a £23.5 million ($31 million) investment in two separate grants to Lockheed Martin to establish launch operations at SaxaVord Spaceport and for the research and development, build and flight demonstration an of orbital maneuvering vehicle. SaxaVord Spaceport also supports skills and jobs in Shetland by operating a commercial ground station and offering test facilities for launch vehicle manufacturers.
British company Skyrora, which is currently developing its Skyrora XL orbital launch vehicle, also plans to operate from SaxaVord Spaceport. In March 2021, Edinburgh-based Skyrora received £2.5 million ($3.3 million) in grant funding to complete the development of their Skyrora XL launch vehicle as part of the UK’s investment into the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Boost! initiative.
While the first launches will be extremely exciting, all of these investments are designed as a catalyst for the long-term growth of the UK’s nascent launch market. We work closely and constructively with the companies and spaceports involved to support our shared ambitions, developing a complementary set of horizontal and vertical launch offerings for domestic and international customers.
Launch licensing and regulation
Anyone in the industry will tell you that launch is challenging – orbital launch even more so. Experience through the decades across many nations have improved designs and safety criteria, but failures are still experienced, particularly in the early life of launch vehicles. While today many operators are able to learn rapidly from both successful and failed launches, it is essential that we have the right balance of regulations that keep people and the environment safe while offering flexibility and the ability to operate by keeping risks as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).
In July last year, the Space Industry Act 2018 and the accompanying regulation came into force to enable launches to take place from the UK from 2022. Developed by the UK Space Agency and the Department for Transport, our outcome-focused regulatory framework, overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority (the equivalent of the FAA in the US), has been developed to be the most modern space legislation in the world and the flexibility to support the pace of innovation.
Safety is paramount, environmental protection is key, and innovation within the sector must be supported. That’s why the UK’s approach avoids being overly prescriptive and conforms to the ALARP principle. Spaceports and operators need to demonstrate that risks have been managed to an acceptable level, but precisely how they do that 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 it means a departure for some operators from the more familiar US system. 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 in a few months’ time.
In 1952, when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne, Sputnik was still five years away from launch and the idea of a person on the moon was little more than a dream. In 2022, the year of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, the global space industry is booming, and the UK is on the path to launching into a new era as a spacefaring nation, with a clear National Space Strategy.
The first launches from Cornwall and Scotland will be defining moments, but they are only the beginning. The UK Space Agency will continue to spearhead the drive to make the UK a more meaningful actor in space, working closely with government departments, our vibrant commercial space sector and international partners to support our national and global ambitions.
Ian Annett is deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency.