New support for British spaceports

Orbital AccessImage copyright
Orbital Access

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Artwork: A number of companies are looking to develop low-cost air-launch systems

The government is looking to push forward commercial spaceflight activity in the UK with a series of grants totalling £10m.

The money is aimed at consortia that want to start launching satellites – and even people – from British soil.

Previous feasibility work has already identified a number of aerodromes that might make suitable spaceports – from Cornwall to Scotland.

Ministers also intend to introduce supporting legislation.

As the law stands, the rocket planes and other launch systems currently in development around the world would not be able to operate out of the UK.

The legislation would put in place the necessary regulatory and licensing framework.

A Spaceflight Bill is likely to be tabled towards the end of the month.

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SSTL

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The emphasis is on launching satellites

To win grants, consortia will have to show how they will “develop spaceflight capabilities, such as building spaceport infrastructure or adapting launch vehicle technology for use in the UK”.

Ministers have identified space as a key sector that can help re-balance the British economy.

They regard satellites as one of the “eight great technologies” that can lead to significant growth opportunities.

In recent years, the UK has made heavy investments into industry through the European Space Agency as a consequence.

But satellites have to get into space to be useful and the business of launching them also has the potential to bring significant earnings – particularly now that low-cost launch systems are becoming available.

Announcing the new grants, Science Minister Jo Johnson said the commercial spaceflight market could be worth an estimated £25bn over the next 20 years.

“Spaceflight offers the UK the opportunity to build on our strengths in science, research and innovation,” he said.

“It provides opportunities to expand into new markets, creating highly-skilled jobs and boosting local economies across the country. That is why it is one of the key pillars of our Industrial Strategy.

“We want to see the UK space sector flourish, that is why we are laying the groundwork needed for business to be able to access this lucrative global market.”

A number of consortia are already pushing to use horizontal launch systems.

These would see rockets carried by planes to an altitude where they would then be released to make their way into orbit to deliver a satellite.

For safety reasons, this activity would be done somewhere over the ocean, but ministers have not ruled out the possibility that conventional vertical lift-off rockets could also be launched from the UK.

And although satellites are the focus of business leaders, it is conceivable that “tourist” flights on sub-orbital rocket planes could become part of the services being offered.

In 2014, the government identified eight coastal aerodromes that might become a spaceport.

At the time it was thought, officials would pick a “winner” – as if it was a competition.

But ministers’ views have changed. They now see the establishment of spaceports as a bottom-up process.

It is up to consortia to come forward with a realistic plan that includes a practical site and a committed launch provider.

Government’s role is to be a regulatory facilitator and cheerleader; ministers are not interested in using substantial public funds to build spaceport infrastructure or to support launch operations.

There is also a deeper, more mature understanding of how spaceports should work, says Stuart McIntyre from Orbital Access.

His company, based at Prestwick Airport, is developing a satellite launch system based on a standard wide-body jet.

“We would fly a carrier aircraft with a launcher out over the ocean to conduct the launch operation,” he told BBC News.

“So clearly we would need a diversionary site if for any reason we cannot land back at the runway from which we took off.

“We therefore envisage a system of collaborating spaceports and a system of operators whose needs will describe the capabilities that are required at those spaceports. So, I would say the government’s approach has matured and it’s matured in a sophisticated way.”

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