The United Kingdom has strong space potential, already holding a 6% share of the global space market. However, the country does not plan to stop there and aims to become an independent space nation before the end of the decade. While the concept of ‘space-faring’ is rather vague, the simplest definition implies making independent rocket launches — that is, using domestic-built rockets carrying domestic-built payloads and carrying those launches out from domestic spaceports.
If we stick to this definition, the only thing the UK lacks is its own spaceports, which is exactly why the UK is actively working on building its own launchpads. Besides, Great Britain signs launch agreements with local and foreign operators because its latest Space Industry Act presupposes launching foreign rockets from domestic spaceports. Some local experts are not overly excited about the idea of ‘leasing’ the UK’s upcoming launchpads to foreigners like Lockheed and Orbex Space. But can international collaboration truly endanger the UK’s space-faring goals? Let’s try to find out.
Even though the UK never had domestic spaceports, its space history is still impressive. In 1962, the UK, in collaboration with the US, launched the Ariel-1 satellite. Less than a decade later, in 1971, the UK Black Arrow rocket deployed a UK-built satellite from an Australian launchpad. After that, the domestic rocket-building programme was curtailed, and the UK focused on building satellites and their component parts. Today, Scotland’s space sector produces more satellites than any other region in Europe, confidently following only California in this regard.
In 2010, the British National Space Centre was replaced by a brand new entity — the UK Space Agency (UKSA). This establishment could justly be considered a fresh start in the country’s space industry development. The agency has re-established its relationship with NASA, becoming an active contributor to the new lunar programme Artemis. Besides, the UKSA has taken a new industry course. Instead of just making satellites and their component parts, the UKSA initiated spaceport construction to offer a full, end-to-end launch service.
Even though the spaceport construction initiative was voiced in 2014, not a single launchpad has yet been commissioned. Still, one can confidently state that the UK spaceport construction is in its final stages as the government is already working on a framework to regulate future launches. The latter may happen as soon as in early 2022, but it is not yet clear which of the proposed six sites will carry out the first launch from UK soil.
Some of the top contestants for the title of the first UK spaceport are Sutherland Space Hub and Shetland Space Centre. Both Scottish spaceports are designed for traditional vertical launches and already have interested launch operators. However, in the case of Sutherland, not all Scottish space companies are fully behind its main resident Orbex Space. This, in turn, implies that the company may not be able to secure the necessary funding for building its Orbex Prime rocket.
One of the main reasons why Orbex Space is not the most popular player in the Scottish space sector is its controversial reputation and a long history of failed projects. Orbex Space originates from Denmark and has past connections to notorious inventor Peter Madsen currently serving a life sentence for murder. The company re-emerged as Moonspike in 2015, starting a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter for a moon mission. The campaign failed miserably, and the company re-emerged once again as Orbex Space — this time, in the UK and with the intention of building an eco-friendly rocket.
In the UK, Orbex Space did manage to secure £18 million from capital venture funds for its Prime rocket and £5.5 million from the UKSA for launchpad construction in Sutherland. However, little progress has been made on either of those. Besides, the UK has given Orbex Space funding after its claim to create 130 local jobs in Sutherland, but Orbex Space failed to deliver on this promise. So, one can only wonder if Orbex Spacecan keep up with its other claims.
Next, there is a question of Brexit that may become an obstacle in the UK’s space industry development. Technically, the UK is still a European Space Agency member and can collaborate on most ESA projects not related to the military and defense sector. However, the UK will still have to work out its export and import fees from Europe because some UK space companies, Orbex Space included, have offices and manufacturing facilities in Europe.
With current uncertainty about the costs of importing rocket component parts, Orbex Space already announced its plan B to launch from the Azores. This, in turn, means that the UKSA’s £5.5 million investment in Orbex Space may just go to waste. Plus, the nature of this grant is rather questionable as the UKSA’s employee whose division finalized the funding was hired by Orbex shortly after that. Notably, the company never announced any prior vacancies.
Given Orbex’s tarnished reputation, it is not surprising that most private investors would rather support more established companies and more promising spaceports. Especially so if one of the largest aerospace companies in the US — Lockheed Martin, operating via its UK division — has already left the Sutherland ship. Originally, Sutherland was supposed to build two launch pads — for Orbex Space and Lockheed, but the latter changed its allegiance to Shetland. According to Lockheed representatives, there were ‘technical differences,’ which made them relocate to Shetland.
Orbex Space representatives did comment on the move, stating that the company is happy for its American colleagues. According to Orbex, the decision was taken after 18 months of behind-the-scenes considerations, and now, Sutherland development becomes simpler. While no one can actually confirm if Orbex’s claims are true, we can still hope that simplified operations in Sutherland will result in its quicker commissioning.
Orbex Space and its dubious reputation is not the only challenge interfering with Sutherland spaceport development. Plenty of environmentalists voice their concerns about the ecological consequences of carrying out rocket launches. In the case of Sutherland, the construction would imply destroying a large area of peat bogs which are the natural sources of capturing carbon. Besides, the UK aims for zero-carbon emissions by 2050, and it is not clear how the country will manage to do that if rockets keep taking off from its home turf. To be fair, Orbex Prime rocket should emit 45% less carbon in comparison to traditional rocket fuels, but ‘fewer’ and ‘zero’ are not quite the same.
Shetland also faces opposition from wildlife activists and Historic Environment Scotland (HES). This spaceport project should be built near the currently non-operational Royal Air Force Skaw radar station. The facility was of great importance during WWII and HES is concerned about destroying the UK’s cultural heritage.
Still, in terms of launch operators, Shetland’s odds seem more promising. Even though some Scottish space experts point out that Lockheed, as a leading US military contractor, is not the wisest choice, the company has at least proven its launch technology— unlike Orbex Space with its Prime rocket still in development. Another Shetland operator, British Skyrora, already carried out a successful firing test, which means it is ahead of Orbex Space and Prime.
Besides, the UK plans to build horizontal launch sites as well. Here, the leading facility with the highest commissioning odds is Cornwall, with Virgin Orbit as a top launch provider. Virgin has already proven its air-launch tech, deploying several CubeSats into LEO.
Despite all challenges with spaceport construction and questionable launch providers like Orbex, it looks like the UK will deliver on its launch promises. It is not yet clear if Sutherland will become the first UK spaceport or if Orbex’s Prime will ever fly, but the UKSA has other launch operators and other spaceport projects.
It is true that the UK may be placing too much trust in foreign launchers like Orbex Space and Lockheed because these companies may not have the UK’s best interest in mind. On the bright side, Orbex Space and Lockheed are not the only launch operators UKSA partners up with. British Skyrora is a highly promising startup with its line of rockets, and Virgin is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson.
Once the spaceports are operational, they will create new job opportunities and bring revenues to the state budget. And, even if some investments, like Orbex Space, may not pay off, the UK is still actively moving in the right direction. Soon enough, the country will truly become a leading player in the international space market, becoming the first European country with its own spaceports. Besides, when these spaceports are operational, one can reasonably expect the emergence of new UK rocket makers, so foreigners like Orbex Space and Lockheed will not remain the leading operators for long.
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