The latest to enter the private-sector space race is the UK, which announced on July 16, 2018, at the Farnborough International Airshow, that it plans to build the country’s first commercial vertical launch spaceport in northern Scotland. This will allow Britain to develop low-cost, high-volume rockets for small satellites. The UK government has already kick-started the project by providing almost $40 million (£30 million) in funding to companies involved, including the U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
On July 16, 2018, the UK Space Agency announced at the Farnborough Airshow it had awarded $31 million (£23.5 million) to the U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin and another $7.2 million (£5.5 million) to the UK-based spaceflight startup Orbex, Space News writes.
The two companies have been tasked with developing launch systems that will operate from a vertical launch site to be built in Sutherland, Scotland. The agency had already announced the location of the launch site on July 15, 2018.
UK Business Minister Greg Clark reiterated the agency’s announcement by saying the new site in Sutherland would provide facilities for vertically-launched space rockets and satellites to take off into orbit. The government also said satellites could be launched from Sutherland as soon as the early 2020s, Reuters reports.
The UK Space Agency unveils UK’s first spaceport
The government’s funding for Lockheed will go toward establishing vertical launch operations from Sutherland, as well as, developing the Small Launch Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (SL-OMV) for deploying as many as six small satellites into orbit.
“The countdown to the first orbital rocket launch from UK soil has officially begun,” said Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s UK country executive for space, in a statement.
“The U.K. government has stated its desire to grow the U.K.’s space sector to 10 percent of the global space economy by 2030. We are proud to be selected to help them achieve this goal,” he was quotes as saying by Space News.
Meanwhile, Orbex, a British rocket launcher, will use the funding for the development of a small orbital launch vehicle called Prime which will deliver the small satellites into orbit.
“With our collective experience, we have developed a low mass, low carbon, high performance 21st century orbital launch vehicle, designed specifically to support the needs of the rapidly growing smallsat industry,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex, in a statement.
“There is a significant launch backlog for small satellites globally and Orbex is primed to give industry and science a cost-effective, reliable and responsive route into space, directly from Europe,” he was quoted as saying by Space News.
According to the British government, the investments are the first steps towards developing a national space program. Funding was also provided to other sites in Scotland – Wales and Cornwall – to examine their potential for horizontal spaceports. These will be required further in the future to establish a UK space flight market, Reuters reports.
“As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our industrial strategy,” Clark said in a statement. “The U.K.’s thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the U.K. in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites,” he was quoted by Spaceflight Now.
And since Britain is leaving the European Union in 2019, it needs to boost its own space sector NOW. As a result of the incoming departure, some UK-based companies have already been excluded from future work on the EU’s $11.7 billion (€10 billion) Galileo satellite program.
By the way, although the British government said it is seeking its first orbital launch from the spaceport in the early 2020s, Orbex is aiming at 2021 for first flight. And, as Arstechnica observes, both will have to meet their deadlines if they are to compete with emerging launch sites in New Zealand and elsewhere in the intensifying race to deliver small satellites into space.