Reimagining Space: An Introduction to UK Launch

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In this article for our Reimagining Space series, we are looking at the UK Launch Sector and the future of rocket launches from the UK.

Access to space in the UK is changing as new technology emerges, creating the opportunity for new types of companies to exploit the power of space. The next natural step in the UK Space Industry‚Äôs journey are the launch sites that have been planned across the UK, including in Scotland and Cornwall, which could cement the country as Europe’s most attractive destination for commercial spaceflight activities. But what will the space ports look like? How will they operate? And what challenges are we facing?

The UK is a prime location for spaceflight. We have been a pioneer in space technology for over 50 years, from the launches of the black arrow rockets in the late 1960s and early 1970s to our thriving small satellite market. The UK is at the forefront of space technology and our universities are respected globally for their space science research. We are ready to exploit the new commercial opportunities that launching from UK soil would bring.

THE SIZE OF THE OPPORTUNITY

Back in 2011 and 2012, we had globally only around 10 to 12 companies building large vehicles to get into space. Some of these were big platforms operated by the space agencies like the European Space Agency, and some were slightly smaller launch vehicles operated by a variety of commercial organizations.

Fast forward to today, and we have 300 plus organizations actively competing to put objects into space. Suddenly, we’ve gone from having few launch vehicles, and comparatively little investment into something which is very different. We have huge amounts of investment, huge numbers of organizations competing, and not just organizations from the typical launch locations in Russia, and the United States, but organizations from across the world.

We now also have Musk, Branson and Besos, and it’s all about new opportunities and new innovations in the sector.

THE CHALLENGE

The challenge we have today, is a lot of organizations who think that they can build rockets. But actually, building successful and repeatable rockets is a real challenge.

Building one rocket is ok, you can build something explosive, and it goes up in the air. But to do that repeatedly, in a way which is commercially sustainable is difficult. Most of the organizations out there will find it too challenging to be successful. It really takes a very different organization with a long term view, and a good commercial, and a good technological roadmap, and the right backing to actually be successful.

THE UK

There is now a good chance that the UK is going to be the first country in Europe to launch rockets from its own soil. There are also companies who have chosen the UK as their launch base, and that too is significant. The UK is not well located for accessing equatorial launches, but we are well located for going into a polar orbit, or sun synchronous orbits, and those orbits are actually more attractive for smaller satellites, because they’re particularly good for Earth observation missions, or communication missions. And that’s the kind of launch which the UK will support successfully.

But on top of launch sites, the UK has also got everything from testing capabilities, manufacturing innovation and we have the right skills and the right people. We are the right location to launch rockets and those can be sounding rockets for simulating microgravity, and putting small satellites into space and demonstrating new capabilities.

So it’s bringing together a combination of location, skills, capabilities and of course organizations like the Catapult and wider parts of UK infrastructure to support innovation and ensure that companies operating in space have the skills and the resources they need to make themselves a success.

This article is a summary of discussions on our In-Orbit Podcast Series.