The UK’s Future Rocket Plans

25th Mar 2021
Black Arrow

Despite the UK’s potential within the space industry, this country is not among the TOP 5 space powers. How so? The answer is simple. Unlike the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and Iran, it has not yet reached full manufacturing status for rockets or offer launch services yet. Although rocket manufacturing facilities have been created and are gearing up for full production. The British space industry is still primarily focused on the production of small satellites and space equipment, which are successfully used in other countries’ missions.

However, the recent exit from the European Union is pushing the UK to expand its spheres of influence in the global space market. The new UK space program involves local spaceport construction and comprehensive startup support for the production of the first British launch vehicles.

The first UK rocket: Black Arrow 

Notably, there was one rocket manufactured in the UK. Not willing to lag behind the United States and the USSR in the space race, the UK launched its own Black Arrow rocket program. However, it was not implemented until 1971. Prior to this, the first British satellites, Ariel 1 and 2, were launched on American rockets from Cape Canaveral in 1962 and 1964. Only seven years after Ariel 2’s launch, the first rocket in the UK, Black Arrow, launched British satellite, Prospero, into orbit. The launch took place from Woomera spaceport in Australia and, to date, has been the only UK-made satellite launch executed with a UK-made carrier. The UK then curtailed the program, not paying due attention to its space sector until the early 21st century.

In 2010, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) was founded, assuming all influence over space matters. In ten years, tremendous amounts of work have been carried out to restart the space sector. Today, the UK is getting ready to commission four local spaceports and is developing several next-generation launchers to provide fast and affordable access to space.

New British Rockets 

REL Skylon 

British company’s Reaction Engines Limited project is working to create a reusable unmanned spacecraft. Skylon is an innovative UK space rocket. It will take off and land like an airplane, gain supersonic speed and supply oxygen from its own tanks. The technology has several advantages over conventional rockets:

  • no need for overclocking stages and accelerators
  • the same engines are used for spaceport and orbital flights
  • high carrying capacity – 12 tons
  • launch cost is 15-50 times lower than that of traditional rockets

Skylon test flights are expected by 2025. Currently, SABER hypersonic engines, for which the UKSA has allocated REL £100 million, are being tested.

Orbex Prime

Lightweight Prime, developed by private company Orbex, is another attention-worthy UK space rocket. Prime’s distinctive feature is that it uses an environmentally-friendly fuel based on propane and liquid oxygen, which translates to reduced launch site requirements. UK rocket Prime will have a reusable first stage and will be able to launch up to 150kg into polar orbit. The first launch is expected in 2022.

Skyrora XL

Another British startup is developing a whole line of suborbital and orbital rockets, headed by Skyrora XL. The light carrier will have three stages and up to 315kg payload. It will launch payloads into SSO (500 to 1000 km altitude) and polar orbit (200 to 1000 km length). Skyrora focuses on providing an end-to-end launch service and promises to be fast, affordable, and safe. Skyrora rockets will use its own innovative Ecosene fuel made from plastic waste. The first tests showed that it not only reduces environmental damage during combustion but also has a great energy potential.

Orbex and Skyrora hope to launch their rockets from the new British spaceports. Around five facilities are planned in the UK. However, all of them are still in the negotiation and approval stages. The most promising sites are in Sutherland, Shetland, and Prestwick. Once the facilities are operational, the UK will become a key player in the space market. Besides, upcoming UK rocket launches could bring additional tens of billions of pounds to the country.

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