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Launching a UK Spaceport

For many years the United Kingdom has excelled in manufacturing small satellites and CubeSats. What the U.K. industry has been missing is a domestic launch capability to avoid the reliance and dependence on foreign suppliers for launching its spacecraft.

The Opportunity

Perhaps the single most important development for the growing SmallSat industry will be low cost access to space. This will be the game-changing technology that opens up the market and commercial opportunities.

For many years the United Kingdom has excelled in manufacturing small satellites and CubeSats. Companies such as Clyde Space and SSTL are world leaders in the industry. What the U.K. industry has been missing is a domestic launch capability to avoid the reliance and dependence on foreign suppliers for launching its spacecraft.

The lack of sovereign launch capability poses an increasing risk to the U.K.'s growing space industry, and in particular small spacecraft missions and services. Although operating successfully and commercially in space and ground segments, U.K. industry has been highly vulnerable to launch price and schedule changes from international partners and suppliers.

Proposal for a UK Sovereign Launch Capability

The Queen's speech on May 18, 2016, which announced the U.K. government's policy agenda for the year ahead, featured the proposal for the first commercial spaceport in the country. The Modern Transport Bill announced in parliament set out the aim to “secure low-cost access to space for our world-leading small- and micro-satellite industry.” The bill gave no timescales, but did mention “enabling a first U.K. spaceport … within the life of the parliament;” which would mean before 2020 when the current parliamentary term ends.

The planned spaceport (first proposed by David Willetts in 2012) would allow the United Kingdom to develop low-cost access to space for commercial satellites and space tourists. Five spaceport sites have been shortlisted: Newquay in Cornwall; Llanbedr in Snowdonia, Wales; Glasgow Prestwick, Scotland; Campbeltown, Scotland; and Stornoway in the Western Isles.

It is understood that the Department for Transport has written to the five shortlisted spaceport sites to notify them that the government will "create the regulatory conditions for any suitable location that wishes to become a spaceport." All five sites will be able to apply for a license to establish a commercial spaceport.

Legislation will now need to be drafted to certify space vehicles and their safe operation within U.K. airspace. Much work has already been carried out however by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, tasked by the Department for Transport and U.K. Space Agency, to enable spaceplanes to operate from the U.K.

Attracting Investment

This announcement is part of the U.K. government's plan to grow the nation’s share of the global space sector to 10 percent by 2030. An important part of this ambition is for the United Kingdom. to be the European center for sub-orbital spaceflight. The bill should attract potential investment in spaceplane operations and spaceports, thus creating more highly skilled jobs in the sector and sparking innovation.

"Small satellites are an increasingly large part of the market and the ability to cost-effectively launch them, on-demand, from an easily reached site should improve the competitiveness of European small satellite mission providers like Deimos," said Philip Davies, managing director at Deimos Space U.K. "The U.K. is ideally situated to provide safe and easy access to the polar and sun-synchronous orbits in which most small satellites are designed to operate.”

As for timing, the U.K. government is right to consider the spaceport now, as already four U.S. states and 20 countries including Australia, the UAE, Spain and Sweden all have plans to build spaceports of their own; recognizing the economic growth that the support of their national space industry will provide.

“Low cost access to space is a critical enabler for numerous valuable business opportunities in space. British companies like Orbital Express will help create a large number of new jobs, as well as a national competitive advantage in the highest possible technology sector,” comments Chris Larmour, CEO at Orbital Express, a European micro-launcher company with offices in London, Copenhagen and Munich.

In addition to serving as an enabler for domestic spaceport infrastructure, the Modern Transport Bill also fundamentally supports the manufacturing of SmallSats in the U.K. and the fledging small launcher industry.

“The U.K. has the ambition to grow its space sector from 12 billion pounds in 2013 ($17.4 billion) to 40 billion pounds ($57.9 billion) by 2030 and Airbus, as the U.K.’s largest space company, intends to be part of this growth story. The space launch sector could represent up to 10 percent of this growth, so the announcement in the Queen's speech of the intention to establish a U.K. commercial launch site is strongly welcomed,” Richard Peckham, business development director at Airbus, said.

It is clear that an end-to-end space industry in the United Kingdom, from conception to launch of a satellite, would be attractive for investment. The United Kingdom would be the first country to offer this in Europe. VS