Orbex PRIME vehicle launching from Scotland (Source: Orbex)

UK stakes out small satellite leadership with new launch sites

The New Space industry is a national asset for the United Kingdom, one the country is determined to nurture and grow to 10 percent of the global space economy by 2030. This week, the UK Space Agency announced funding to create spaceports, one for vertical launches and another for air-launched systems.  Both sites will provide the UK with an independent ability to put small satellites into orbit that complements its satellite building industry.

The vertical launch spaceport will be built on the on the northern coast of Scotland near Sutherland. Launching north provides access to sun-synchronous orbits in demand for deployment of low earth orbit (LEO) small satellite constellations covering the globe.  Lockheed Martin and UK launch start-up Orbex will invest and build facilities for operations in Sutherland, along with building rockets for launch there.

Lockheed Martin will integrate a Small Launch Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (SL-OMV) built by Moog in the UK onto a rocket-to-be-named — Rocket Lab’s Electron could be in the running with other small launchers — as part of a pathfinder mission to put a group of CubeSats into orbit. The first vertical launch is expected in the “early 2020s,” according to a Lockheed Martin press release.

Orbex announced on July 16 it has secured close to $40 million in a combination of public and private funding, with funding coming from the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Europe venture capital funds Sunstone Technology Ventures and High-Tech Gründerfonds.   The Prime launch vehicle will put satellites into sun-synchronous or polar orbits and is designed to use renewable bio-propane fuel.  It also incorporates low-mass recoverability and reusability features to lower launch costs.

While several UK airports are under consideration for air-launch operations,  the initial site is likely to be Cornwall Airport on the southern tip of England. Virgin Orbit plans to conduct launch operations out of Cornwall by 2021, using its Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” carrier aircraft. The 747 will carry a LauncherOne rocket to cruising altitude. Once at the proper heading, LauncherOne drops away and ignites to carry its satellite payload to space.

National launch capabilities will be useful for both UK-based companies and European small satellite builders.  UK-funded and based Catapult forecasts up to 400 small satellites will be launched in 2020, including missions for Internet of Things (IoT), earth imaging, and communications.  Clyde Space and Surrey Satellite Technology are among the UK small satellite companies that would benefit from a national/ local launch capability.  Across the Channel, Denmark-based GomSpace,  Netherlands-based  Innovation Solutions In Space (ISIS) and other European small satellite manufacturers would gain another option to offer customers that want to put satellites into orbit, with an all-EU solution presumably providing a faster path into space rather than having to wait for a larger rideshare launch out of India or the U.S.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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