The Great British Lift-Off
At the last Farnborough International Airshow in 2018, the United Kingdom started the countdown to the first orbital launch from the country. The U.K. Space Agency announced it selected a site near the town of Sutherland in northern Scotland to host a vertical launch facility, and awarded $38 million to two companies to perform launches there. Other launch companies and prospective spaceports also announced plans to develop and launch rockets in the county.
Four years later, as the aerospace industry prepares to squeeze onto trains and line up for shuttle buses to return to Farnborough, that countdown still hasn’t reached zero. The Sutherland launch site hasn’t been built yet, while British companies that might use it or other launch sites are still working on their vehicles. The first orbital launch from the U.K. now appears likely to be performed by a U.S. company, Virgin Orbit, whose LauncherOne air-launch system is scheduled to fly from Spaceport Cornwall as soon as September.
Launch companies in the U.K., though, are not deterred by that slow progress. While lagging American launch vehicle developers, they see themselves at the forefront of the European small launch industry, with ambitions to begin launches in the next year or two.
One of the companies that received awards from the U.K. government in 2018 was Orbex, which is developing a small launch vehicle called Prime it plans to launch from Sutherland, capable of placing up to 180 kilograms into orbit. (The other, Lockheed Martin, later decided to acquire a rocket from a U.S. company, ABL Space Systems, and move that launch from Sutherland to SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands.) That award was part of nearly $40 million in both government and private funding the company announced to continue development of Prime, then planned for a first launch in the second half of 2021.
The company, like so many other launch vehicle developers, has seen its schedule slip, but it is making progress towards a first launch. In May, it rolled out a full-sized prototype of Prime to a test stand a few kilometers from the Scottish factory where it builds the rocket. Orbex, which had kept a low profile before winning the U.K. launch award in 2018, turned the rollout into a media event complete with a light show and comments from U.K. science minister George Freeman and ESA director general Josef Aschbacher.
Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, said since that rollout, the company has been busy testing Prime, including operations of the engines under “vertical firing conditions.” Crews have also been working on launch operations, including rolling out, erecting and fueling the rocket, refining procedures the company will use for future launches.
Orbex indicated in May that the first orbital launch of Prime, carrying an experimental payload for smallsat manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., could take place late this year or early next year. But that depends on factors beyond work on the rocket itself, which means the company is reticent to set a specific launch date.
“There are three elements which all have to come together,” Larmour said. One is work on Prime itself, which he said is going well. The second is construction of launch facilities at Sutherland, while the third is receiving a launch license from the U.K. government. “All the elements are progressing in parallel, but Orbex is only fully in control of the launch vehicle itself.”
Despite delays in development of the Sutherland site, Orbex continues to consider it the company’s “home” spaceport. “Nonetheless, we’re open to working with other spaceports and we’re in discussions with other European and American sites,” he said, but did not disclose any specific launch sites the company is considering.
In close competition with Orbex is Skyrora. It is working on Skyrora XL, a three-stage rocket designed to place payloads weighing up to 315 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit. It is also working on Skylark L, a suborbital sounding rocket intended to test some of the technologies needed for the larger Skyrora XL.
In May, the company completed a series of static-fire tests of the 3D-printed engine that will power the first two stages of Skyrora XL. The engine, which produces 15,700 pounds-force of thrust, uses high-test peroxide — a concentrated version of hydrogen peroxide — and kerosene, although the company says it’s working on an alternative to kerosene it calls Ecosene that can be produced from plastic waste.
The engine test was backed by an ESA program called Boost! — the exclamation point is part of the name — intended to aid development of small launch vehicles, or microlaunchers, in ESA member states. Skyrora won the $3.1 million award in 2021 for engine testing. (Orbex also received a Boost! award valued at $7.8 million for work on avionics and software.)
“This test concludes a key milestone,” said Jack James Marlow, head of engineering at Skyrora, in a statement about the test, “and now unlocks the next series of tests for engine qualification.”
Skyrora announced June 7 it hired a former SpaceX executive as its new chief operations officer. Lee Rosen spent a decade at SpaceX as vice president of mission and launch operations, and before that served 23 years in the U.S. Air Force in various launch-related roles.
“It’s an exciting time to join the company,” Rosen said in a statement. “Skyrora’s mobile, agile and responsive launch and on-orbit capability can provide the U.K. with something it has been missing and bolster its special relationship with the U.S.”
Earlier this year, Skyrora suggested it would be ready to launch Skyrora XL from SaxaVord before the end of the year, but has since backed away from that schedule. Company spokesperson Nickie Finnegan said that given the pandemic, Ukraine war and other issues, “we’ve stopped trying to guess ourselves exactly when an orbital launch will occur.” She added, though, that the company could be ready by the second quarter of 2023 “given our current pace of technical development.”
Beyond Orbex and Skyrora, there are a handful of other launch ventures based in the U.K. Most are still in the very early stages or have made little progress. An example of the latter is Starchaser Industries, a company that attempted to develop a suborbital crewed vehicle to compete for the Ansari X Prize, won 18 years ago by Scaled Composites. The company says it’s continuing to work on such vehicles, but its last update was in 2017, when it launched a small rocket to an altitude of less than two kilometers.
One company trying to separate itself from that pack is Astraius. The company, founded in 2019, is working on an air-launch system. Rather than drop a rocket from a wing or fuselage, like Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus or Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, the rocket would be carried inside a C-17 cargo aircraft. The plane’s rear doors would open in flight and parachutes would pull the rocket out the back, stabilizing it vertically so it could ignite its engines and ascend to orbit.
The idea is not new. In 2006, a U.S. company, AirLaunch LLC, tested the deployment of a prototype of its QuickReach rocket from a C-17 in flight. The test, backed by DAPRA, was successful, but the company ran out of funding before it could attempt an orbital launch.
Astraius envisions flying out of Prestwick Spaceport, the current Prestwick Airport near Glasgow. Development of facilities there to support Astraius launches, funded by an £80 million ($98 million) regional economic development package, is proceeding “at pace,” the company says.
Astraius is keeping under wraps, though, many elements of its launch system. It describes the rocket itself as a “system successfully used by the U.S. Government for over 30 complex missions” and capable of placing up to 800 kilograms into orbit, far more than other air-launch systems, but has not revealed details about this rocket. It’s also unclear how it will gain access to C-17 aircraft, which are used solely by militaries.
The company says it “will work with numerous C-17 operators worldwide” to get the planes needed for its launches, but did not provide further details on those efforts or development of the overall launch system in response to questions about them. Astraius adds that the company is “fully funded for its initial development efforts” but has not disclosed how much funding it has raised.
“We continue to have significant market engagement and are in discussions with customers and potential customers in the UK, US and elsewhere ahead of our first launch in spring 2024,” Kevin Seymour, chief executive of Astraius.
While Astraius, Orbex and Skyrora all take different technical approaches to developing launch vehicles in the U.K., they all face a similar challenge: getting a launch license from the government.
After the passage of the Space Industry Act of 2018, which established the legal framework for commercial launch activity in the country, government officials spent two years finalizing regulations for commercial launches, modeled at least in part by those used by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for launches. The Civil Aviation Authority, the U.K. equivalent of the FAA, oversees those regulations but has yet to issue a launch license or a spaceport license.
At a hearing of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in January, CAA officials didn’t give a schedule for issuing any launch licenses. “We’re open for business. We’re processing applications. The key driver for the timetable will be the quality of the applications, the evidence presented,” Tim Johnson, director of strategy and policy for the CAA, said when asked several times by committee members whether the agency would issue licenses for commercial launches this year.
The first company needing a CAA launch license is Virgin Orbit for its LauncherOne mission from Cornwall. “The CAA, their regulatory agency, has been quite engaged with our experts, making sure they understand the system,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a June 28 call with reporters. “That kind of dialogue has really helped quite a bit in clarifying their questions and making sure the regulatory process moves along.”
He added there’s “tremendous interest all the way up through the minister and above level” in supporting his company’s U.K. launch plans but didn’t give an estimate on when the CAA would issue a license beyond projecting a launch in September.
Orbex’s Larmour said his company submitted a launch license application to the CAA in February. “We have a positive ongoing dialogue with the CAA,” he said, “and we anticipate being licensed for the first launch of Prime in due course.”
Skyrora, meanwhile, has faced a regulatory challenge in another country. The company says it has been working since last year to secure approvals from the government of Iceland to conduct a launch of its Skylark L suborbital rocket there. The company took the unusual step of publicly complaining about the delay in April, issuing a statement calling on the Icelandic government to issue a license and end nearly a year of delays.
“We are continuing to work alongside the Icelandic government to refine the regulatory environment for launch,” Finnegan, the Skyrora spokesperson, said in June.
The countdown clock for U.K. launch will still be ticking at this year’s Farnborough air show, but when the industry returns for the next one in 2024, one or more companies may have finally achieved liftoff.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.