A new space race? Britain enters the orbital launch business.

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The UK’s first-ever orbital space launch, due in days, will also be the first commercial launch from anywhere in Western Europe. It represents the broadening of space ambitions in the UK and Europe, at a time when the commercial, scientific and military importance of space is clearly increasing.

The upcoming launch, from Spaceport Cornwall, hints at Britain’s current limits as well as its aspirations.

Why we wrote this

For people used to hearing about rocket launches from Florida or Russia, the name Spaceport Cornwall might sound like an oxymoron. But the UK is a manufacturer of satellites – and now the first European player to send them into space.

Instead of a rocket taking off vertically, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket system will be carried by a modified Boeing 747 to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where it will be jettisoned and then fire its own engine to blast off into space.

The system cannot compete, in payload, with companies like SpaceX. However, Great Britain is concentrating on a niche where it is already present: small satellites. The first launch will not only carry various UK satellites, but also Oman’s first satellite, one from Poland, and a joint US-UK mission.

That of Poland, in particular, symbolizes the continuation of cooperation between the United Kingdom and the European Union, after Brexit. Ian Jones, CEO of Cornwall-based Goonhilly, the world’s only commercial deep space communications facility, says: “Space has always been a business that transcends political differences.

Take a look inside the operations of Spaceport Cornwall, and the focus on precision and innovation is clear.

People are dressed in pristine white lab coats, hair tucked into blue caps, faces obscured by masks and goggles. The space is immaculate, devoid of almost any furniture or clutter. The workers huddle around a table, concentrating on the task ahead of them, while in the background stands a huge cage shaped like the nose of a rocket.

Here in the South West of England, this clean room is where satellites are embedded in their distributor – the part of a launch system that will launch them into space when they reach orbit necessary. It is part of a brand new facility paving the way for the UK’s first ever orbital space launch.

Why we wrote this

For people used to hearing about rocket launches from Florida or Russia, the name Spaceport Cornwall might sound like an oxymoron. But the UK is a manufacturer of satellites – and now the first European player to send them into space.

The launch, due in a few days, will also be the first commercial launch from anywhere in Western Europe. This represents a wider increase in spaceports coming online in Europe, from other parts of the UK to Norway and Italy. These measures underscore the growing importance of space around the world as a commercial, scientific and military domain – and the determination of European nations, including Britain, to participate.

“I think this launch is hugely important for the UK,” says Juliana Suess, research analyst and policy manager on space security at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security think tank. . “Among the few real and tangible milestones I would choose from the government’s recent National Space Strategy was Sovereign Launch Capability in 2022.”

Changing geopolitics of space

Some analysts even see a new space race underway, with powers such as the United States, China and the European Union committing huge sums of money and a myriad of lunar missions planned over the course of the year. next decade.

More recently, the war in Ukraine has reinforced the critical nature of space technologies, with companies releasing satellite imagery to bolster intelligence and SpaceX’s Starlink satellites providing crucial telecommunications services to the Ukrainian military. In addition, 36 satellites from OneWeb – an entity partly owned by the British and French governments – are stuck in Kazakhstan, after Moscow refused to allow them to be launched without a guarantee that they would not be used against Russia.

In this increasingly tense geopolitical climate and with the growing importance of space, the development of this sovereign launch capability is certainly a boon. Yet it is only one part of a much larger enterprise.

“British space launch is not the holy grail of British space power,” says Gabriel Elefteriu, director of space strategy and policy at Policy Exchange, another London-based think tank. “This is a very important and useful addition to our space offering, particularly from a commercial point of view…but we must realize that there is still a lot to do and our ambition must go much further. .”

Cornwall’s launch alludes to current limitations as well as aspirations.

This will be the first launch from British soil of Virgin Orbit’s launch system called Cosmic Girl. Instead of a rocket taking off vertically from a launch pad, it’s a modified Boeing 747. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket system will be jet-lifted to an altitude of 35,000ft, where it will be jettisoned and then ignite its own engine to blast off into space. .

Antennas at Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, England, the world’s only commercial deep space communications facility, on August 23, 2022. Goonhilly, which is approximately 40 miles from Cornwall Spaceport, will be involved in tracking Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket system, as well as the satellites it then puts into orbit.

LauncherOne is capable of sending up to about half a ton of satellites into space. Some of the other spaceports planned for the UK will be able to accommodate heavier payloads. SaxaVord, for example, based on the Shetland Islands, hopes to lift up to 1.5 tonnes, using the more traditional vertical rocket launch. But compare that with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which can carry nearly 64 tons, and the difference in scale becomes obvious.

A British focus on satellites

Still, many analysts say the UK approach makes sense, as the UK alone can never hope to compete with space superpowers such as the US. On the contrary, the emergence of Spaceport Cornwall reflects a decision to focus on partnerships and on an area that the UK already does well. , namely small satellites. (Many are already being built in the UK, with Glasgow alone manufacturing more than any other site in Europe.)

“I think the UK has the opportunity to become a hub… globally, not just in Europe” for micro-satellite launchers, says UK-Relations Researcher Gabriele Redigonda. Europe in Space at the European Institute for Space Policy in Vienna. . “I’m not saying it will; I say he has a chance.

Britain’s space push is fueled largely by private industry. Measured by private funding for space startups, Britain is by far the biggest European player. Yet his government also plays a role. For example, agency Innovate UK is looking to develop promising companies (one of which is behind a satellite for the upcoming Cornwall launch) through an effort called Satellite Applications Catapult.

Yet for all the explosive growth in the small satellite industry, the business case for many European-based spaceports is unclear.

“I think it will come down to domestic political will, wanting the UK to have space launch capability,” said Mike Curtis-Rouse, head of space access at Satellite Applications Catapult. “Will it be economical? I’m not entirely convinced.

Building spatial links with Europe?

But in a nod to the international ambitions of Britain’s nascent spaceport industry, the first launch will not only carry various UK satellites – including the first Welsh ever to orbit – but also Oman’s first satellite, a Polish and an American. – British joint mission.

That of Poland is perhaps the most relevant, as an emblem of the continued cooperation between the UK and the EU, post-Brexit. Since its withdrawal from the European Union, Britain has lost access to the EU’s Galileo global positioning satellite system, and its participation in another EU programme, Copernicus, is in doubt.

Yet the UK is still part of the European Space Agency, a separate body from the EU. Moreover, the recent merger between OneWeb (a company partly owned by the UK government) and Eutelsat (a company partly owned by the French state) went smoothly, suggesting that the commercial space sector can continue to operate smoothly, perhaps even kick-start cooperation in space relations more broadly.

“Certainly people in industry want to do the job,” says Ian Jones, CEO of Goonhilly Earth Station, the world’s only commercial deep-space communications facility, located about 40 miles further in the Cornwall as the spaceport and who should be involved. in the follow-up to the launch of Virgin Orbit. “So from that perspective, I think space has a strong ability to bring people together.”

“You know,” Jones continues, “astronauts going into space talk about the overall effect of seeing the Earth without political boundaries. … Space has always been a field of activity that transcends political differences.

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