Can Britain’s Space Race Start?

The first ever orbital rocket launched from British soil is due to launch on Monday, kicking off Britain’s space race.

The ambition is to make the country a global player in space – from the production of satellites to the construction of rockets and the creation of new spaceports. But can Britain find a place in an increasingly crowded market – and why try to reach for the stars?

“We’re guinea pigs,” says Melissa Thorpe.

“It’s the first time any of us have done it, so it was quite a learning experience.”

Melissa is in charge of Spaceport Cornwall, which is about to conduct its first foray into space.

He shows me around their base at Newquay Airport.

There is the usual hustle and bustle here: passengers arriving, suitcases being loaded, planes being refueled.

But there is also something more surprising on the asphalt: a 21-meter rocket.

The team is busy getting it ready for the first ever launch from British soil, which will put satellites into orbit around the Earth.

Virgin Orbit 747

The Cornwall rocket launch will begin its journey into space on this modified jumbo jet

But this is a blast with a difference.

There will be no vertical launch from the ground. Instead, the rocket is attached under the wing of a modified jumbo jet. Once the plane is in the air, the rocket will be released and fire up the engines to go into space.

It took years and a lot of hard work to create the UK’s first spaceport, as well as a completely new regulatory framework to ensure these launches were safe.

We hope this will impact the local area, one of the poorest in the UK, by attracting new businesses and creating new jobs.

“I think this is the next chapter for Cornwall,” says Melissa.

“We were at the heart of the industrial revolution. Pioneering technologies are not new to us.”

But there is also a broader ambition. If successful, it should help the UK become a leading space destination.

Black Arrow Rocket

The “lipstick” rocket should have marked the beginning of the British startup industry

However, this is not the first attempt to create a British startup industry.

The red and white rocket, nicknamed “Lipstick”, was to be the start of something big for Britain.

It launched in 1971, sending a satellite into space.

The program was called Black Arrow, and it was the first British-built rocket to launch a British-built satellite into orbit – although it was launched from Australia.

However, the costs were deemed too high by the government, so the first launch turned out to be the last.

The British launch industry then took a long hiatus, but another aspect gained momentum in the UK – building satellites.

And that has helped fuel a thriving space sector that is worth £16.5bn a year to the UK economy and employs nearly 50,000 people, according to a recent government report.

SpaceForge satellites

Nine small satellites will be launched into space from Cornwall

“We’re absolutely kicking it out of the park when it comes to producing small satellites,” says Dr Alice Bunn, CEO of UKSpace, a trade association for British space companies.

So far, he says, UK-built satellites have had to be shipped overseas to get into space, but this first launch will change that.

And it comes at a time when satellites have become an integral part of our lives – although Alice says most people don’t realize how dependent we are on this technology.

“Think of satellite navigation systems, environmental monitoring, emergency response – not to mention all the telecommunications capabilities – that we can provide from space. It really runs through our lives,” he says.

And some companies have big plans for this technology.

Satellite production

The Welsh company Space Forge wants to use satellites to produce materials

Cardiff-based company Space Forge believes a whole range of new materials could be produced in orbit.

In the cleanroom, one of their little satellites is meticulously prepared for its journey. It is one of nine launched into space during the Cornwall launch.

Space Forge describes its shoebox-sized satellites as mini factories.

“In space, in the absence of gravity, you can mix any materials together,” says Andrew Bacon, chief technology officer.

“So if you take the entire periodic table and start combining things – like lead, aluminum, rubidium, einsteinium – there are billions of new alloys you can make now that you couldn’t make on Earth.”

He explains that the new materials could find applications in electric vehicles, green technologies or computers.

He believes there are big advantages to launching these satellites near their Welsh base.

“The fact that we can just drive a road for a few hours to get to our spaceport has a huge impact,” says Andrew.

But it’s not just Cornwall’s race into space.

Amidst the bleak, beautiful rolling hills and jagged cliffs of Shetland’s Unst Island, there is lively activity as excavators and dump trucks come and go.

Our team is celebrating as an important milestone has been reached. The concrete is hardening on their first launch pad, one of three planned for the site.

The SaxaVord spaceport is being built on a peninsula jutting out to sea on the northernmost tip of the UK.

“I think the first reaction from the locals was maybe it was April Fool’s Day or something,” says Debbie Strang, SaxaVord’s chief operating officer.

“And then when they saw progress and growth, there was real excitement about what we were doing.”

There is a reason why they chose such a remote place, where Shetland sheep and ponies outnumber the inhabitants.

“For us, it’s a safety feature,” says Debbie.

“What we do needs to be done as far away from population centers as possible so that there is no real threat to people nearby when the rocket is launched.”

Shetland

The remote location is away from densely populated areas

SaxaVord is aiming for the UK’s first vertical rocket launch to launch satellites into orbit, with up to 30 launches a year when fully operational.

This is not the only spaceport based in Scotland. Others are planned for Sutherland in the Highlands and Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

We hope all of this can boost local economies, and that’s especially important at Unst.

“This island has suffered greatly from depopulation over the last 20 or 30 years,” explains Scott Hammond, SaxaVord’s deputy general manager.

“There was a small airfield here which was the third busiest helipad in the UK. They also had an RAF station here.

“Once that was gone, the island’s population was halved, and it clearly had a huge economic impact.”

He hopes the spaceport can bring the island to life.

“We will have more and more maintenance work when refueling the rockets, like adding liquid oxygen to the rockets. And of course it will be a high-paying, highly skilled job.”

Ashan Zaman

Aviation graduate Ahsan Zaman says the UK space industry is creating new opportunities

But if you’re building a launch pad, you also need rockets – and SaxaVord is working with several companies looking to use Unst for launch.

One of them is Skyrora, based in Cumbernauld, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Inside the huge hangar, the team is busy working on various parts of the rockets, from nose cones to engines and fuel containers.

The company is making smaller prototypes before building a larger rocket, the Skyrora XL, which it plans to eventually launch from Shetland.

Skyror Rocket

Skyrora is working on a prototype rocket before building a larger model

“You create a complete design on paper and then start building it. You build prototypes, run tests, go back to the drawing board and see what needs to be fixed,” says Ahsan Zaman.

He has just finished his aeronautical studies and says the UK’s new focus on space is opening up opportunities for science and engineering graduates. He is proud to be working on the project.

“If we’re successful, we’ll forever be known as the first people to do it in the UK. So yes, it’s both an honor and an excitement.”

While the startup industry is just starting to gather in the UK, it is much better established in other parts of the world.

One company in particular is currently dominating the market: Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Thanks to reusable rockets, the company has significantly reduced the price of sending satellites into space.

Can a raft of small new rocket companies compete?

Skyrora CEO Volodymyr Levykin says he wants his rockets to offer a more customized service.

“We want to be like a satellite taxi service,” he explains.

“To launch when the customer wants us to launch and deliver them to exactly where they need to be in orbit.”

He believes that as more and more small satellites are built, the market for launching them will grow – but not every company will succeed.

“Some of us will fail, of course,” he says.

“But there are those who believe in this emerging market. We decided to invest sooner rather than later to be ready when the market actually starts to develop.”

The UK government says it wants to push the space sector and is investing in research and development.

But UKSpace’s Alice Bunn says support needs to be long-term.

“You will not become a global space player by investing solely in R&D. There must be some government commitment to continued operational capability.”

He says that could mean, for example, registering the government as a client for launches.

“We have to think a little creatively, industry and government are working together, just to get off the ground.”

All eyes are now on Cornwall, waiting for the first start in the UK.

This will be just the beginning of this new industry, with many challenges ahead.

However, as the well-known mantra says, space is hard – and everyone who works in this sector knows it.

We hope that with this high risk comes the possibility of exorbitant rewards.

Follow Rebekah on Twitter.

Produced by Alison Francis, Senior Climate and Science Journalist

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