With the UK Government committing £10m towards stimulating a UK commercial space launch capability, TIM ROBINSON ponders some questions for would-be Dan Dares.
Spaceport UK. What the 'Eagle' comic thought an airport would be like by the 1980s...
The announcement that the UK Government is seeking to stimulate the UK’s fast-growing space sector, especially in a post-Brexit world, is one to be welcomed. Grants totaling £10m will be awarded to consortia that have ideas to launch satellites (or even humans) from the UK and the Government is set to introduce legislation in the form of a Spaceflight Bill to enable this. So far, so good.
Those with long memories may remember Dan Dare and wonder why, after the last launch of Black Arrow in 1971, the UK exited the long range rocket business completely. Indeed, despite the UK’s post-war austerity and other big aerospace projects (Concorde, V-Bombers) many historic names such as de Havilland, Saunders Roe, Bristol Siddeley, and BAC were working on rockets or launchers other than for airborne, anti-aircraft, anti-tank and other short and medium range weapons.
The UK's missing launcher sector
What might have been - BAC's Mustard space shuttle study of the 1960s. (Crecy)
With the UK aerospace sector the second (or third) biggest in the world, this missing launcher sector of the UK space industry looks odd - particularly today, when everyone from the US, Russia and China to Japan has an active launcher programme – and even countries like New Zealand and Taiwan are working on low-cost launch systems. The excitement of ‘NewSpace’ pioneers like Elon Musk and SpaceX and Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin in potentially reducing the cost of getting into orbit, means that the UK, with its distinguished aeronautical history and expertise, should be able to carve a nice slice out of this projected £25bn market.
Indeed, Government is already moving to select a location for a UK spaceport – with seven sites, including Campbeltown, Glasgow Prestwick, and Stornoway in Scotland; Newquay in England and Llanbedr in Wales shortlisted in 2015. However, in May 2016, this shortlist was scrapped and now the contest opened up to ‘any suitable location’. A UK Space Agency industry conference, set to take place at the Royal Aeronautical society on 21 February will no doubt see intense discussion.
It may be that a low-cost, rapid-response, small launcher meshes perfectly with the UK’s vibrant and strong small/nano satellite industry – enabling both to soar to greater heights."
In fact, the first rocket launch from the UK to space (or at least past the 100km Kármán line that officially designates ‘space’) has already happened, when a US Terrier-Orion two stage rocket was launched from a QinetiQ facility in the Scottish Hebrides to act as a ballistic missile target for a US warship in the Atlantic.
So surely a UK spaceport and associated launch capability is the next logical step - isn’t it?
However – there are four reasons to treat this announcement with a bit of critical thought as the Government prepares to release its draft Spaceflight Bill to make this all happen.
Is the stimulus enough?
Skylon - ironically perhaps cheaper to develop than HS2 - but still far, far more than £10m. (Reaction Engines)
1) Firstly £10m is a drop in the ocean for developing a new airliner – let alone a space launch system or even a spaceport. HS2 railway for instance is said to cost £56bn – just to get to Birmingham – let alone into Low Earth Orbit. Even putting new engines (a slight simplification) on the A320neo cost Airbus approximately €1bn. Will £10m be sufficient an incentive – especially when (despite Whitehall enthusiasm) aviation regulations which may help inform commercial space operations currently have Article 50 hanging over them. If the UK does pull out of EASA, the DfT will have little time to devote to space cadets.
Geography counts for geostationary
Avoiding populated areas for launch and for downrange is key. (NATS)
2) Second, for launchers heading to the commercially valuable geostationary orbit, the nearer the equator the better – giving vehicles escaping Mr Newton extra help from the Earth’s rotation. Hence Cape Canaveral, Florida (28.5deg) and French Guyana (5.2deg N). Another factor to consider is what is downrange once your rocket blasts off – with water or uninhabited territory being ideal. Thus the UK at northern latitudes (55.3degN) means either a polar orbit, or sub-orbital flights. Even polar orbits may be tricky. Launching south risks dropping spent stages into Europe, so a launch site on the western isles for southbound launches or on the northern isles for a northward launch seem like the only viable options. Certainly safe trajectories into the Atlantic can be found, but will these have to go against the Earth’s rotation and reduce useful payload? The attraction of a Scottish island is its remoteness but that is also one of its challenges – the logistics become expensive. Not a great selling point.
Stunning views - or your money back?
Blue skies, no clouds, perfect view. Not then, the UK. (Virgin Galactic)
3) The big elephant in the room for sub-orbital tourist flights, is of course, the British weather. Pay $250,000 for a Virgin Galactic sub-orbital flight from New Mexico and you can most likely guarantee a stunning cloud free vista of the Southwest US, with LA, Vegas, the Grand Canyon to gawp at. Launch from the UK – and there is a high probability you will just see a blanket of grey cloud. And it is not just for manned flights either – unmanned rockets too have strict wind and weather limitations – just watch the number of countdown scrubs even in sunny Florida. Some have suggested northern latitudes may be ideal for sub-orbital Aurora Borealis flights – in which case Sweden’s Kiruna spaceport might be a better claim. The density of population and air traffic over the British Isles is another factor – not just from aircraft taking off and landing in the UK, but as the gateway to Atlantic tracks from US, European and other airlines. While air-launched vehicles can fly to quieter airspace, the thought of a fully-fuelled rocket dangling off an aircraft climbing up through busy UK airways might make safety regulators wince. It is reassuring that DfT will retain responsibility for these horizontal take-off launches while the UK Space Agency will deal with vertical launch rockets.
Taking on Space X and co
SpaceX is already causing a shake-up in the large launcher industry (SpaceX)
4) Returns and the wider launcher market. Though launchers are fun, fiery and if you are Elon Musk, landing one on a barge at sea, very cool indeed, the real money and high returns are in satellites and satellite services. In addition, apart from occasional failures, there is still lots of overcapacity in the launch sector for large satellites. ULA and Arianespace are now struggling to meet the competition by SpaceX. While there are undoubtedly niches (small launchers for rapid response nano satellites) entering this sector is an intensely competitive market. Even SpaceX, the poster-boy for private enterprise in NewSpace relies heavily on US Government launch contracts (NASA and DoD). Is there a similar commitment from the UK Government to provide a regular stream of small satellites needing to be launched? Two years ago the UK injected £60m into the long term promise of low cost launchers by supporting the Reaction Engines - SABRE engine development. The current £10m funding injection is a sensible balance to that, addressing the more immediate market demand.
A more realistic future - Scottish space company Orbital Access sees small payloads being launched by converted airliners to begin with (Orbital Access).
In short then, despite the nostalgia for Dan Dare, Ministry of Space and Britain’s Black Arrow, it could well be argued that the UK’s space industry has become a world-leading success primarily because it has left the launching to someone else. Operating your own national space access system may have valid strategic reasons (military communication, or spy satellites) but for purely commercial reasons we may be heading into unknown territory, given the UK’s geography, weather, population density and competition in the larger launcher market.
Conversely, given the unpredictably of US politics for the next four years and the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it may be wise to build up a sovereign British launch capability – just in case. And it may be that a low-cost, rapid-response, small launcher meshes perfectly with the UK’s vibrant and strong small/nano satellite industry – enabling both to soar to greater heights. Just don’t expect Saturn V rockets blasting off from Terminal 5, Heathrow.