"As we prepare to leave the European Union and so redefine our place in the world, we must ensure that the decisions we take now put the U.K. in a position to build a strong, resilient, well balanced economy that works for everyone." This wording is stated in the foreword to the U.K. Draft Spaceflight Bill, published in February 2017. The United Kingdom seeks to be the first country in Europe to provide a hub for the low cost launch of small satellites. "We want to see U.K. spaceports enabling the launch of small satellites from the U.K., as well as sub-orbital spaceflights and scientific experiments," the foreword continues.
The United Kingdom is a world leader in the development and manufacture of small satellites, and the government seeks to encourage this by ensuring a U.K. sovereign launch capability; thus providing end-to-end capability for small satellites. This aligns with the government's ambitious efforts to grow the United Kingdom's share of the global space market to 10 percent by 2030 — a date that seems to be approaching quickly.
The current lack of access to launch facilities and their cost is a barrier to entry for smaller satellite companies. "The market has changed quite drastically in recent years, and companies building small satellites find that the availability of a low-cost launcher is an impediment to growth — there is now definitely a perceived gap in the market for low-cost small launchers," Richard Peckham, business development director of Airbus Group states.
Mark Thomas, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Reaction Engines, echoed these comments when he recently referred to "the technology changes around satellites and the development of smaller satellites creating a greater demand for availability of launches that cannot be satisfied by the current launch solutions."
"I think we have seen an evolution in the industry and we are stepping into a new paradigm effectively. This is the ideal opportunity for the U.K. to take its place and its lead in that new market,” he said.
The United Kingdom needs to move speedily, however, to capture a share of the global market for launch capability, as countries such as Norway and New Zealand seek to develop their own capabilities. It is even more important for the United Kingdom to distinguish itself in the run up to Brexit.
The market for smallsats will only expand with higher-resolution Earth observation capabilities, communications technology, navigation needs, and new sectors and markets understanding the value of satellite services.
Low cost access to space will undoubtedly stimulate this growth. David Ashford, managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes, said space planes, and thus cheaper access to space, for smallsats is likely to have as big an impact as the steam locomotive, a British invention, did in the 19th century. "A proper spaceplane ... can slash the cost of launching satellites by at least 100 times, possibly even 1,000," he said. Ashford envisages that space planes could fly from a U.K. spaceport both to place satellites in orbit and to carry passengers on sub-orbital flights. Low cost access to space will open up the market and commercial opportunities for smallsats. Steam power changed everything; an independent U.K. launch capability should at least propel the United Kingdom to its growth targets if operational in time. The United Kingdom government intend that licenses for launch and sub-orbital activities will be granted by 2020 and offer grant funding of around 10 million pounds ($10.6 million) to kick-start activities.
In the highly risky area of launch services, the U.K. needs to balance long-term risks and liabilities with encouraging innovation, commercialization and sector growth, and keeping those involved as safe as possible.
To do so, it will use tools such as risk assessments; third party liability and launch insurance requirements; unlimited indemnities to the government; and liability caps for operators. Such requirements need to be transparent and reasonable. It is vital that the U.K. government works with industry to draft the implementing regulations under the bill detailing how such tools will be used effectively.
The United Kingdom must regulate on a risk-aware, yet enabling, basis — allowing low cost launch capabilities, including space planes, to be the "steam locomotive" of the 21st century. VS