As the UK approaches the first-ever orbital launches from its soil, many wonder if foreign launch providers like Orbex Space are the best way to secure the UK’s space future. Recently, the UK announced the beginning of a new public consultation phase which is a key step on Britain’s journey to orbital launches. The consultations, however, will have to consider quite a lot of issues, not just the presence of foreign-originating companies like Orbex Space and Lockheed Martin.
Among other things, the Space Industry Act, introduced in 2018, presupposes launching foreign rockets from British spaceports, and foreign launchers, Orbex Space included, are raving about this opportunity. While international collaboration is, indeed, important, the initiative does raise some concerns. Right now, all major spaceports, soon to be constructed, have their residents. American Virgin Orbit, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, has an eye for a horizontal launch site at Cornwall. Another US corporation, Lockheed Martin, plans to carry out vertical launches from Shetland. Sutherland Space Hub currently has two interested launch providers — British Skyrora and Denmark-originating Orbex Space. In other words, the UK is under-represented when it comes to its own spaceport residents, and Orbex is not the only foreigner on this list.
Still, since the end of July 2019, all spaceport construction discussions seem to be revolving around environmental concerns. One more focus of these discussions is on providing a business-friendly environment for all parties involved. However, creating a business framework beneficial for everyone is something that’s easier said than done, especially given the presence of foreign entities like Orbex Space.
Spaceports are soon to become a vital part of the UK economy, and orbital launches call for some industry trade-offs. Given that UK spaceports should become the first orbital launch facilities in Europe, the sheer amount of interested parties is overwhelming. Science Minister Amanda Solloway stresses the importance of business-friendly conditions because conducting orbital launches requires tight collaboration.
Ms. Solloway adds that spaceport construction will create new job opportunities in the UK and should help attract more international investment to this rapidly growing sector.
The scope of the undertaking is huge. Launch site projects are proposed in Wales and England, but the most promising facilities are located in Scotland — where Orbex Space plans to reside. Even though the spaceport initiative was first made public in 2014, little progress has been achieved so far. The competition between planned sites and rocket companies, such as Orbex and Skyrora, is ever-increasing, though, and we can count on more space battles along the way. At the same time, the UK keeps investing in different companies — not only local ones like Skyrora but also international ones like Orbex Space. To date, the total investment amount has already reached £40 million.
The beneficiaries include the above-mentioned Lockheed and Orbex Space. The first one is the largest US defense contractor, while Orbex has some dubious history since it was founded by a notorious Peter Madsen, convicted for murder shortly after founding Orbex Space. To be fair, Madsen has nothing to do with Orbex right now, but the memory remains.
Another company interested in launching from Sutherland is an Edinburgh-based Skyrora with its innovative line of affordable rockets. Both Orbex Space and Skyrora are competing to make the first orbital launch from Sutherland, and some parties wonder why most investment efforts are not focused on supporting a domestic rocket manufacturer. While Skyrora does have support from the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the same organization also invests in Orbex Space. One of its recent grants reached £2.5 million.
Regardless of how the UKSA allocates its funds, no one can argue that this is a very exciting time for the UK and its budding space industry. The first orbital launches are expected to take place in the mid-2020s. In the meantime, local governments and the UKSA are looking for ways to find a balance between spaceports’ economic potential and environmental impact.
Most spaceport projects are planned in remote areas with low population density. Sutherland Space Hub, with its investment in Orbex Space, is not an exception. It is located in Scotland’s northernmost region, and its construction is overseen by a leading developer Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
Sutherland does have great economic potential. HIE plans to create 40 new job opportunities directly at the launch site and around 400 more in the neighboring area. However, despite multiple supporters understanding the benefits of spaceport construction for the local economy, the facility has plenty of opponents, too. And Orbex Space is not the only reason for concern.
Linda Munro, the chair of the Sutherland County Committee, recently acknowledged these concerns. The facility is planned not far from a small township with just 200 residents. Most of them are worried about noise pollution, disruption of their peaceful life, and spaceport’s impact on the environment.
Munro believes that the success of Sutherland project will depend on HIE’s negotiations with the residents and on how well spaceport launch providers can tackle their own tasks. While Skyrora has already completed a series of successful rocket tests, Orbex Space’s Prime rocket is still in the development stages. So, no one can say for sure if Orbex Space will be able to deliver on its ambitious promises.
Besides, the spaceport faces opposition from the local magnates. Scotland’s largest landowner Anders Povlsen called for Sutherland legal inquiry, also asking the authorities to consider other planned sites in Scotland. Of course, some believe that Povlsen is prejudiced against Sutherland because he owns land near the spaceport facility.
The environmental concerns are not all justified either. Environmental consultancy Ramboll conducted a detailed study of the planned spaceport and is determined to give the project the green light. Even though Ramboll did point out some potential issues that could affect land and marine areas in the spaceport vicinity, the same agency is determined to supervise spaceport construction to minimize its effect on the ecology.
Right now, only time can tell what awaits UK spaceport projects and their residents, foreign Orbex Space included. First of all, Great Britain is well-known for protecting its countryside and passing environmental laws to reduce greenhouse emission levels. According to plan, the latter should reach ‘net zero’ by 2050.
Some believe that spaceport construction contradicts carbon-free initiatives so actively outlined by the UK. This only seems logical if we think of the space industry and orbital launches in 20th-century terms. Today, however, it is possible to introduce green initiatives to any project, and rocket launches are not an exception.
Orbex Space, despite its dubious reputation, is developing an environmentally sustainable launch system. This includes reusable first-stage booster and bio-derived fuel with minimum carbon emissions.
Besides, spaceport commissioning should become a large boost to the UK’s economy. In January 2020, UKSA conducted a study proving that its £523 million investment in the ESA (European Space Agency) projects drew in £1.4 billion to the local budget. Once UK spaceports are operational and Orbex Space, along with other operators, start launching, this figure should grow exponentially. Even in the next five years, the revenues from Orbex Space and other companies’ launches are expected to double.
UKSA study analyzed industry stats in 2016-2017, discovering a total income of almost 15 million pounds between 41,9000 professionals employed in the space sector. The same study also showed that £5.5 billion results from space exports. This is exactly when Scotland has been shortlisted as a site for spaceport construction, and the negotiations with Orbex Space and other foreign operators began.
Right now, Sutherland spaceport plans to make 12 launches a year. Once the facility is commissioned, this number may grow as more operators, not just Orbex Space, sign launch contracts. At the same time, even if the spaceport carries out 20 orbital launches a year, it will take some time before the investors see any returns because construction expenses are estimated at £100 million. This figure includes not only the actual launchpad construction but also associated infrastructure — roads, bridges, utility services, etc.
The revenue from a single launch, be it either Orbex Space or Skyrora, is currently estimated at £1 million. So, even if Orbex alone will carry out all of the planned 12 launches, the ROI would only result in £12 million. A more optimistic estimate is at £120 million gross revenue in 12 years. This, however, will only become possible if rocket launches are not too pricey and many clients would be interested in hiring Orbex Space or Skyrora.
Realistically speaking, Skyrora’s chances of attracting clients are higher, even if we only consider this company’s impeccable reputation. Orbex Space, however, cannot boast an equally good standing, so its success at Sutherland remains questionable.
Still, given the government’s investment in space initiatives, we should soon expect the first orbital launches from Scotland. Only then will we be able to see the actual future of UK spaceports.
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