Black Arrow legacy: What British rockets are now made in the UK?9th Aug 2021
Great Britain, despite its current lack of British rockets, is one of the key states representing Europe in the global space tech market and the European leader in small satellite production. The British Space Agency UKSA actively cooperates with ESA, NASA and supports space companies and startups – both financially and at the legislative level – wishing to work in Great Britain. The only thing missing in the UK space industry is its own UK space rocket manufacture.
Since the Black Arrow programme was curtailed in 1972, the UK has not built a single orbital rocket. Today, all of its satellites are launched on ESA’s or private aerospace carriers – most often, the American ones. To fill this gap, the UKSA has adopted a new space programme. The country plans to develop several local sites for launching lightweight UK space rockets within its framework.
Several companies negotiate launching their rockets from Scotland, England, and Wales: already geared up to start operating American Virgin Orbit Launcher One rockets, as well as promising developments from two young British aerospace companies Skyrora (XL) and Orbex Space (Prime).
So, the UK will be able to fill the gap in its space sector and enter the launch market with an end-to-end launch service (its satellites, its rockets, its own spaceports). According to experts, space rocket Scotland launch sites will increase the country’s share in the global space industry up to 10% and will give a powerful boost to the British economy.
We compared the Skyrora XL and Orbex Prime rockets with their Black Arrow predecessor and evaluated their chances for success in the small payload launch market.
The First UK Rocket: Black Arrow
The three-stage Black Arrow launch vehicle was developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the second half of the 60s and became a continuation of the Black Knight ballistic missile program that successfully operated from 1958 to 1965.
Black Arrow was designed to launch satellites up to 100 kg into low earth orbit up to 500 km high. The UK rocket carried out a total of four launches between 1969 and 1971 – 2 suborbital tests without a payload and two orbital launches with one. Launches 1 and 3 ended in system failure, and only the last one was completely successful.
It was the first and only time when the UK has launched its own satellite on its own UK rocket. The actual launch took place at the Australian Woomera spaceport, where Black Knight missiles were previously tested. Soon, the Black Arrow program was closed as unprofitable, and the last, never launched, copy of the carrier can be seen in the London Science Museum.
The Heirs: Modern British Rockets
The next time the UK returned to the idea of building its own launch vehicles only after the creation of the UK Space Agency in 2010. At the time, the private space sector was actively developing in the United States, and the British space business did not want to miss out on a promising niche. Thus began the revival of the UK space rocket industry.
Private companies Orbex and Skyrora were formed in Scotland in 2015 and 2017. Both are aiming to use the latest technology for the development of ultra-light rockets and launch from space rocket Scotland sites.
Skyrora XL is a three-stage launch vehicle with a payload capacity of up to 315 kg on SSO up to 550 km and Polar Orbit (up to 1000 km). Orbex Prime is a two-stage rocket with a payload mass of up to 180 kg to a standard SSO up to 500 km. Both are 3D printed, highly efficient, feature reliable components and engines. The main advantages of Skyrora XL is its flexible launch capabilities and payload capacity that presupposes rideshare missions. For Orbex Prime, it is an innovative fuel that reduces carbon emissions during combustion by up to 90%.
Notably, the rockets are built with the peculiarities of future UK spaceports in mind. Vertical space rocket Scotland sites are planned in Sutherland and Shetland, both in Scotland, as well as Llanbedr in Wales. All construction sites have low population density in the coastal regions, are elevated, and have convenient access roads.
However, the main advantage of launching from the British Isles is the shortest trajectory for entering polar orbits. Besides, UK spaceports will become the first in Europe and could eventually turn into hubs for international suborbital passenger flights.
Skyrora and Orbex plan their first commercial launches for the second half of 2022 and hope they will be carried out from one of the UK spaceports. If everything goes according to plan, the UK will return to the big space race after half a century of lagging behind – but, this time, fully armed with its own British rockets.