Rockets or Satellites: The Future of UK Space

24th Aug 2020
Sutherland spaceport

As preparations for the first-ever launch of a vertical rocket from the United Kingdom begin to ramp up, so do efforts to further foster the British space industry, begging the question, where matters go from here?

Opportunity Arrives

In the coming years, the UK is ambitiously setting the stage for a radical shift from being a gigantic manufacturer of small satellites and space-technologies, to launching it’s very own into orbit from home soil. This is a lucrative industry that demonstrably rewards prowess and is a field in which Britain has glowingly succeeded; whether on the front of scientific aptitude or engineering capabilities, the UK has played an almost disproportionately positive role in the realm of small satellite manufacturing, and is vying for a slice of the launch market as well.

A recent state of the industry review concluded that 2019 was a gigantic success for the industry worldwide. Reduced launch costs, increased launch activity and new services were just a few of the positive transformations noted a July 2020 report for the Satellite Industry Association (SIA).

Accruing approximately $271 billion in global revenue that year, this industry is presumed to be headed in an upward trajectory with no telling just how big the commercial space sector is to become. But with the UK bidding to set up domestic vertical launch sites and gigantic levels of investment being poured in, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is safe to assume that the UK is aware of its extremely valuable role in this industry, and is seeking to firmly secure that position as well as branch into the launch market.

Consider this, between approximately 2015 and 2018 the UK had been estimated to have manufactured 15%-19% of the 500+ satellites launched in that period. Further displaying the importance of the UK in this global industry, official reports reveal that between 2016/17, the UK space sector was growing overall, 7.8% per annum since 1999/2000 to be exact, and was estimated at the time to be worth £14.8 billion, generating just over 40,000 jobs and pumping £5.7 billion into the economy. This is a sizeable stake in a hyper-competitive cutting edge industry that is becoming more advanced and commercialised with every passing year.

The Who’s Who

Over the years, satellite size has been reduced dramatically since the humble and hulking beginnings of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite sent into space by man, weighing a modest 80kg.

Presently, satellites can weigh from more than a tonne to being able to fit in the palm of your hand weighing in at just a 100 grams. As a result, the launch of small-sized satellites is inexpensive, requiring far less fuel and materials to send into orbit. In the coming future, numerous companies based in the UK and internationally will be playing vital roles in future of Britains launch capabilities.

Skyrora, a launch vehicle firm based in Edinburgh, Scotland, is one of the companies leading the star-gazing charge. With a fleet of varying rocket sizes in development and testing, Skyrora is well-positioned to be one of the first, if not the first UK-based rocket manufacturer to launch from British soil, namely from the prized spaceport being developed in Sutherland, Scotland.

Skylark Micro
Skylark Micro – one of Skyrora’s testing rockets, recently launched from Iceland.

Having recently completed a successful test-launch of the Skylark Micro rocket from Iceland on Sunday, August 16th 2020, Skyrora has made history for Iceland, being the first rocket launch to take place in fifty years. Launched from the Langanes peninsula in the Northeastern regions of the country, the 10ft tall rocket reached a height of 30 kilometres, with both first and second stages of the rocket being recovered easily not too far from the shore.

Lockheed Martin, a US-based aerospace and security firm with a sizeable stake in Scotlands launch ambitions, is aiding the nation by providing technology and expertise for the development of British spaceports as well as further space projects. Having been awarded £23.5 million in 2018 by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to lead the home-team, Lockheed Martin will be a crucial figure in the establishment of Britains vertical launch sites.

Furthermore, the firm is also reportedly looking to launch some of its own satellites and rockets from either Sutherland or Shetland spaceports, namely a Small Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle (SL-OMV), which has been built in the US for the UK Spaceflight Programme. This innovative vehicle can carry up to 6U CubeSats such as the companies LM 50. Backing this is Orbital Micro Systems, a firm headquartered in the US, as well as two UK locations in London and Edinburgh; this company will be working with Lockheed Martin to create a UK-built advanced pathfinder for the 6U CubeSat, and validate the performance of the SL-OMV as well as the ground system.

Sutherland spaceport
The proposed design for the Sutherland spaceport.

Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s UK Country Executive for Space said at the time:

“This historic ‘pathfinder’ launch for the UK will also demonstrate the tremendous potential small satellites and CubeSats have across a wide range of commercial and government data collection applications,” adding, “We believe, as the UK Space Agency does, that this effort will help bring the UK to the forefront of the rapidly-growing, global small satellite market and support the UK’s maturing space supply chain.”

One of the other major players in the commercial space sector is Virgin Galactic, who for some years has been working to launch a horizontal orbital vehicle by the name of Unity.

Having conducted glide flights after moving operations to New Mexico earlier this year, testing efforts are ramping up as Virgin Galactic prepares for commercial space travel which could be launching from a £10.7 million horizontal launch facility being built in Newquay, Cornwall. Though a Virgin Galactic spaceflight may from the spaceport is speculative, another arm of the company, Virgin Orbit, will be launching a modified Boeing 747 to deliver small satellites over the coming years.

Virgin Orbit
Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One being released by the Boeing 747.

Orbex, another firm joining the competition, was awarded £2.5 million to cooperate with Lockheed Martin in developing the Sutherland spaceport. With offices in the UK and Europe, Orbex has also signed six launch contracts for its vertical launch vehicle, Orbex Prime. Just as with Skyrora, Orbex is developing environmentally sustainable vehicles with an ultra-low carbon footprint which are also fully recoverable and re-usable.

Orbex Prime
The Orbex Prime rocket prototype.

Future Views

Aside from the Covid-19 pandemic squeezing the breaks on the entire world, the UK is also trying to maintain equilibrium throughout the Brexit transition.

These are indeed tough times for the nation, however, the British space race is somewhat of a silver lining, and is likely to play a vital role in the economic recovery of the nation. The creation and establishment of the Sutherland spaceport could be the success story needed to boost the economy. The aim, as stated by the UKSA and the Space Innovation Growth Strategy ten years ago, is to capture £40 billion of global commercial space revenues by 2030, and even in our current predicament, this is all quite possible. A Size and Health of the UK Space Sector report published in January 2020, indicates that much, as space infrastructures have provided broad economic benefits to the tune some £300 billion, or 15% of UK GDP.

The smallsat market is blossoming, and thankfully so, considering that Glasgow is the largest satellite developer in Europe. Reportedly, 2019 was one of the biggest years in the small satellite sector with 385 smallsats launched, generating roughly $2.8 billion of market value with smallsat manufacturing being the largest driver behind that fiscal boom.

Scotland has a rather robust space ecosystem, with over 130 private companies and numerous research institutes and observatories, making it the perfect location for Orbex and Skyrora to make history. Furthermore, with Glasgow being as prominent as it is in satellite manufacturing, Scotland and the UK economy at large can only benefit from investing in space.

With radical changes to the global market, disrupted supply chains and an imminent period of economic downturn, Britain should turn its focus to space and if anything, perhaps ramp up efforts given the forecasted returns. With a sterling domestic ecosystem of manufacturers, experts and ambitious innovative rocket firms, the UK is in a considerably good position to maximise space-related efforts and reap the benefits for years to come.

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