Virgin Orbit will become the first company to launch a satellite from the UK when it sends a dozen spacecraft into space from Spaceport Cornwall this summer, including two for the Ministry of Defence.
The full payload for the first British launch, announced today, has yet to be revealed, but satellites that will be part of it include one aimed at building semiconductors in orbit, a UK military satellite and an Earth-observing spacecraft from Oman. It will be the first time satellites have been launched from Western Europe.
What are the benefits of launching satellites from UK soil?
There are seven prospective spaceports throughout the UK. Most are in Scotland offering vertical rocket launches, but Spaceport Cornwall has partnered with Virgin Orbit for this initial deployment, with launches going up from Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft that flies to 35,000ft before deploying a small rocket and its payload into orbit.
James Geach, professor of astrophysics and a Royal Society University research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, told Tech Monitor it was a practical solution to the growing demand for launch capacity.
“The ability to access space from UK soil is symbolic of our aspirations of becoming a true space-faring nation,” he said, adding that it is also important from a practical point of view. “Having our own spaceports to launch satellites not only mitigates the need to transport them around the world for launch in, say, Cape Canaveral, but contributes to our overall space industry here at home, creating jobs, accelerating innovation and inspiring the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.”
According to a report from BryceTech for the UK Space Agency, the UK space sector had a total income of £16.5bn in 2019/2020 with space applications, particularly communications and broadcasting, the dominant area with an income of more than £12bn. In the same period the sector contributed more than £7bn to the UK’s Gross Domestic Product and employed more than 46,000 people.
Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, Ian Annett, says that developing a home-grown launch capability will help attract space companies from around the world, who will benefit from the UK's existing space industry expertise.
He said being able to design, build and launch from within the UK will help industries already developing satellites to improve our access to climate data, provide effective communications for difficult to reach areas, and revolutionise services such as satellite navigation and Earth observation.
“We want to be the leading country in Europe to offer small satellite manufacturers a direct end to end route to launch, building on the UK’s leading small satellite industry and delivering a key ambition of the National Space Strategy," Annett says.
Can the UK become a big player in the space industry?
To fulfil its ambitions, the UK will need to remain competitive on price of launch, says Edward F. Jamieson, lead business development manager, government programmes and strategic partnerships in UK & Europe at satellite manufacturer NanoAvionics. If it can do this, it will make a lot of sense for many companies and organisations to launch from British soil, he says.
“If we’re talking about things like supply chain and customs, and establishing serious manufacturing capacity in the UK with volume, then having the ability to launch from the UK represents great value opportunity," Jamieson says. “SpaceX is the most cost-effective way to launch, mostly because of the re-usability – but because they are so cost-effective their capacity is full. You also have to consider the cost of getting to the US, regulatory costs and licensing when transporting satellite technology."
Jamieson continues: “There are other providers around the world, but the UK has to compete with SpaceX as the gold standard and if it can compete on a price and capacity level then it is a huge additional resource for us when enabling access to space.”
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall told Tech Monitor that for the next five years there will be two to three launches per year from Cornwall, and the spaceport has the ability to launch within 48 hours if the government or a private company needs an asset in space quickly.
She said there has also been a notable increase in investment in the region as a result of the spaceport, which operates as a civilian airport alongside the orbital launches.
“We have had to build ancillary facility to house businesses that want to be part of the launch story from all different sectors," Thorpe says. "Having the profile of the spaceport and excitement of it is attracting businesses and investment to a location, creating a new tech cluster in the South West.”
The big draw for the UK is its regulation, she told Tech Monitor, adding: “The licensing and regulations in the UK put the environment and sustainability first and as the 'Wild West' that is space becomes more regulated, people will turn attention to places where they can ethically launch to space and stick to global regulations.”
What is being sent up from the UK?
Among the satellites launching from Spaceport Cornwall in the summer is a pair of shoebox-sized CubeSats built by Hampshire-based In-Space Missions in collaboration with the UK's Ministry of Defence and the US National Reconnaissance Office,
Known as Prometheus-2, they will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imaging technology that will pave the way for a more connected space communications system operated by defence departments.
Another satellite launching with Virgin Orbit is from SpaceForge, a Welsh firm aiming to create a new industrial revolution in orbit – taking manufacturing of semiconductors into space for the first time, which it says will reduce the environmental impacts of production on Earth.