UK Awaits Reusable Rocket Launches: Top Companies to Carry Out the First Flights9th Aug 2021
Britain is serious about joining the global space race, and reusable rocket launches will have a large role to play in that. The UK plans to commission several spaceports for launching small satellites, while its private aerospace companies are building lightweight rockets at full speed. Both expect to carry out their first launches in 2022. Along with traditional carriers, reusable rocket launches are expected, too. The reasons for making a rocket reusable are simple. The British Isles are surrounded by the sea, which is a perfect area for returning the first reusable rocket boosters stage. But are rockets reusable today, or do we have to wait for new tech developments?
What Is a Reusable Rocket?
So, are rockets reusable today? Some of them already are. Modern launch vehicles typically have a multistage design. The first stage, which includes the engine and fuel tanks, is used to lift and accelerate the rocket reusable or not to a certain speed. When fuel burns out, the 1st stage engine is switched off, and the stage is discarded. The second stage engine, ensuring further flight, has lower thrust but can still give the rocket additional acceleration. After the 2nd stage fuel burns out, the 3rd stage engine is turned on, and the 2nd stage is released. In theory, the process of stage separation can continue further and further, but due to design complexity, 2-4 stages are the practical limit.
The reusable rocket launch system implies reusing the carrier’s first stage. For this, though, the reusable rocket boosters stage will have to independently return to a calculated spot on Earth using engines, aerodynamic brakes or parachutes, instead of falling and crashing. Typically, the first stage splashes down into the sea or ocean, after which this rocket reusable stage is fished out, maintained, and used for the next launch.
Today, SpaceX has the most advanced reusable rocket technology. The company managed not only to splash down its Falcon 9 first reusable missile stage into the ocean, but to actually land its reusable rocket boosters on a floating platform! However, we will not be discussing SpaceX heavyweight rocket Falcon 9. Instead, we will focus on lightweight launchers – the ones future UK Spaceports will accommodate. So, are rockets reusable in the UK?
Electron: Are Rocket Lab Rockets Reusable?
Rocket Lab has been launching since 2017. Are Rocket Lab rockets reusable? On 6th August 2019, the company announced plans to develop the Rocket Lab reusable booster stage. The need to increase the launch frequency was the primary reason behind Rocket Lab reusable booster decision. But are Rocket Lab rockets reusable now? Yes, as during the 20th mission on 15th May 2021, the first stage of the rocket successfully landed in the ocean using parachutes, giving Electron the title of a reusable rocket.
Three years prior to that, UKSA had awarded a $31 million grant to Rocket Lab’s parent company Lockheed Martin to develop a light rocket for launches from Scotland. Of the two potential sites, Sutherland Space Hub and Saxavord Spaceport (ex. Shetland Space Centre) were proposed. Lockheed Martin chose in favour of the first site. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said his company would be delighted to consider developing a launch service to support the UK space industry’s growth.
Lockheed Martin later changed its decision in favour of Saxavord Spaceport, arguing that Sutherland’s second client, Orbex Space, had different technical requirements, and sharing the same site can decrease both companies’ chances for success.
So, Rocket Lab reusable booster may take off from the Shetland Space Centre – unless, of course, Lockheed changes its mind again.
Orbex Space Prime Rocket
Scottish startup Orbex Space has been developing its Prime ultralight launch vehicle since 2015 and expects to launch it in 2022. The main declared advantages of Prime are:
- Seamless 3D-printed engine design to withstand increased loads.
- Reusable missile first stage (yet to be developed).
Similar to Lockheed, Orbex received a $7 million grant from the UKSA to become the first client of the Sutherland Space Hub. But, unlike the American company, Orbex has not switched sites and expects to launch from the facility as soon as its reusable rocket is ready, and the spaceport is commissioned.