The First UK Spaceport may Create a Rocket Revolution in Europe

1st Mar 2021
Prestwick Spaceport

Even though Great Britain is a European leader in small satellite and CubeSat manufacture, there is not a single functioning UK spaceport at the moment. The satellite manufacturing niche is becoming ever more promising, but it requires low-cost, lightweight rockets with a low payload capacity and a high launch frequency. A lot of aerospace companies, from the UK included, are building such rockets. However, the country lacks its own spaceports to offer a full cycle of services, from satellite production to orbit launch. Thanks to the UKSA Launch programme, such spaceports should become operational in the next two years.  

What do people know about UK launches?

Today, the UK space sector employs around 42,000 people and generates annual industry revenue of £14.8 billion. At the same time, the country’s share in the world space market does not exceed 6%. The goal of Launch UK is to increase this share to 10% by 2030.

The programme implies building a series of both horizontal and vertical launch sites from the south of England to the north of Scotland. According to the UK government’s forecast, this will create tens of thousands of jobs and bring up to £400 billion to the treasury over the next ten years.

The Great Five UK Spaceports

To date, the government is focusing on five spaceports, three of which are planned in Scotland, one in England, and another in Wales.

Sutherland Space Hub 

This vertical launch site is developed and partially funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) with support from UKSA. The government also awarded a $7.2 million grant to the Danish-originating company Orbex. It should develop a lightweight Prime rocket to launch from this UK spaceport. American company Lockheed Martin received two more grants, worth $ 30.8 million, to develop a new satellite deployment system and provide launching services, initially at Sutherland but later moved their operation to the Shetland Space Centre. The Sutherland Space Hub is expected to handle twelve launches per year.

Shetland Space Centre

SSC plans to build and operate a satellite launch site and ground station at Unst, the UK’s northernmost island. The Ariane Group and the local community are involved in this British spaceport project. This spaceport in the UK is designed for lightweight rockets with a height of 14-30m, which will launch satellites, including the British Pathfinder, into polar orbits.

Cornwall Spaceport

The Cornwall Spaceport is a British spaceport for horizontal launches. It is being developed with support from Newquay Airport in collaboration with Cornwall Council, local entrepreneurs, and British billionaire Richard Branson’s company Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit is expected to launch its modified Boeing 747 aircraft, carrying a LauncherOne rocket under its wing, from this spaceport in the UK. The rocket will separate from the launcher at a 35,000-feet altitude, launching payloads up to 350kg into orbit.

Prestwick Spaceport, Glasgow 

Another spaceport in the UK is under development at Prestwick Airport. The facility is built in collaboration with South Ayrshire Council, Scottish Enterprise, and a variety of industry partners. The developers claim that most of the infrastructure has already been created, and the site can be used for launching satellites, microgravity tests and suborbital tourist flights.

Snowdonia Aerospace, Wales 

Snowdonia Aerospace LLP operates an aerospace centre with the same name at Llanbedr airfield. The company proposes to run their British spaceport along with the airfield’s current activities – research, development and testing of unmanned aerial systems (UASs), robotics and new technologies.

The most promising spaceports from the above list – Space Hub Sutherland and Cornwall – may begin operations in 2021. The future of other sites is less certain, and much will depend on funding and global market trends. One thing is clear, though: the UK government is serious about developing its space sector. This means that, soon, more UK spaceport projects may be proposed. 

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