After decades of launch silence, the UK is now working to revive its space industry. According to a recent report from the UK Space Agency (UKSA), in 2016-2017, the space sector has seen an annual growth of 3.3%, generating almost £15 billion. The UK’s current share in the global space market is slightly less than 6%, but the country is seriously invested in increasing this figure up to 10% before the end of this decade. To this end, Great Britain is working on its own spaceport construction, willing to provide end-to-end launch service.
Given that the UK – Scotland in particular – has plenty of aerospace companies building rockets, satellites, and their component parts, spaceports seem to be the only thing lacking for the UK to become a top space power. On the other hand, spaceports do have plenty of opponents, arguing that rocket launches will harm the environment and questioning the UKSA’s support of foreign-originating operators like Orbex Space. So, will the UK commission its spaceports any time soon?
Spaceport construction is not an entirely new initiative for the UK. Over the years, this topic has been raised many times, but the original discussions revolved around modernizing already existing facilities, i.e., military bases or civil airports. Lately, however, the space tech has had a revolution of sorts – the satellites became ever smaller, so the governments decided to build a launchpad from scratch rather than invest in pricey renovations.
Right now, the UK has six spaceport projects, both for traditional vertical launches and horizontal ones. One of the planned facilities is a vertical launch site at the A’ Mhòine Peninsula – Space Hub Sutherland. The site’s northern location makes this spaceport perfect for launching into polar orbits, and its remoteness from residential areas is an additional benefit.
The UK government already invested £2.5 million into Scottish space industry development, and that includes spaceport Sutherland. The spaceport developer, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), contributed £9.8 million, while five more million came from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. These funds are supposed to cover the construction of basic infrastructure, but more investment will be necessary further down the road.
The UK government also supports launch providers interested in carrying out launches from this vertical spaceport. One of such operators is Orbex Space that got £5.5 million from the UK Space Agency. The government’s interest in Sutherland and potential launch providers is well justified because Scotland, Glasgow in particular, already produces a lot of satellites so building Scottish spaceports to launch them into required orbits is a sound idea. On the other one, some experts wonder if the UKSA should place its trust in foreign-originating companies like Orbex Space.
As of 2015, Orbex Space is registered as a UK company, but its actual history is longer and quite controversial. One of the company founders, Kristian Bengtson, also co-founded Copenhagen Suborbitals with a notorious inventor Peter Madsen, currently serving a life sentence for murdering a journalist on board of his submarine. Back in Denmark, Bengtson and Madsen worked on another failed project – Mars One.
Further history of the company is as contradictory. In 2015, it reemerged in Denmark under a new name – Moonspike. Back in the day, Orbex wanted to carry out a mission to the moon. The company started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter but failed to secure the necessary sum. In October 2015, Moonspike gathered less than £79,000 out of the required £600,000. Following the failure to secure necessary money, the company moved to Forres, UK, and changed its name to Orbex Space.
After starting fresh in the UK market, the company did change its luck for the better – or so it seems so far. Right now, Orbex Space is building its Prime rocket using the £18 million fund from BGF Ventures and Octopus Ventures. Besides, the UKSA kindly provided £5.5 million to Orbex for launchpad construction in Sutherland. The nature of this grant, however, is questionable. Catriona Francis, a UKSA employee whose department provided the grant, soon left the space agency and got a position at Orbex Space. That would all be fine if Orbex posted a prior vacancy on its site or made any kind of job opening announcement, but it didn’t.
Given Orbex’s contradictory reputation and a history of failures, it is no wonder that investors aren’t lining up. The £18 million could help Orbex Space finish its Prime rocket development, but no one can say for sure if Sutherland spaceport will benefit from Orbex Prime launches. The UKSA grant for launchpad construction was finalized in 2017, but since then, very little progress has been made.
Besides, Orbex is not the only Sutherland’s problem. The spaceport faces fierce opposition from the environmentalists and a judicial review initiated by Povlsen’s Wildland Ltd. Besides, HIE received over 400 filed objections to spaceport construction. Environmentalists claim that the spaceport will destroy a large area of peat bogs, which are our planet’s natural sources for capturing carbon. Besides, rocket launches may interfere with the UK’s green, carbon-free initiatives.
To be fair, Orbex Space is developing an eco-fuel for its Prime rocket, claiming that it will emit less carbon than traditional rocket fuels. But given that Orbex Prime’s debut launch is constantly postponed, no one can say for sure if the tech will work. Orbex Space hoped to start commercial launches in 2020, but the Covid pandemic put those plans on hold.
Now, Orbex Space claims to be launch-ready by early 2022, but to date, the Prime rocket did not have a single firing test. Interestingly, Skyrora – another rocket maker planning to launch from Sutherland – already carried out a successful firing test from Scotland and hopes for commercial launches later in 2022. Once again, this raises the question of how reasonable Orbex’s upcoming launch promises are.
On the bright side, the UK government keeps pushing its space initiatives forward and is already working on a legal framework to regulate the upcoming launches. Plus, the UKSA does not put all its eggs in one basket and keeps allocating grants to other launch providers – both local and foreign ones. The latter include established US businesses like Lockheed Martin (operating via its UK division) and Virgin Orbit, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson. Both already have proven their launch capabilities.
So, it looks like the UK space industry will recover after all. We could only wish the UK more truly local companies unlike Orbex Space that would build rockets and satellites. In this case, the UK could truly gain space independence.
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