When will UK spaceports be ready for lift-off?

The UK Government and the space industry have ambitions to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030. Developing space launch sites in the UK is one of four key priorities towards this goal, identified in the Space Growth Partnership strategy in 2018.

The Space Industry Act 2018 laid foundations for space ports to be regulated in the UK, but there are still many details to be set by secondary legislation. Nonetheless, plans are underway to develop a vertical launch site in Sutherland (in the Highlands) and horizontal launch sites at Cornwall and Glasgow Prestwick airports.

This Insight looks at what we know about these spaceports.

Why do we need spaceports in the UK?

Earth observation data collected by satellites is already used for many critical and commercial services, such as navigation, weather reporting, telecommunications and financial services. Together with the decreasing cost of launching small satellites, this is driving a global demand for commercial satellite launch services. The Government and space industry consider a UK launch site to be a key factor required to capture this market and capitalise on the already strong UK industry in satellite manufacturing and services. The Government states that commercial launch demand is potentially worth £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the next decade.

Additionally, the UK’s geography is well suited for launch sites. Its northern latitude provides access to specific types of orbits around the earth – such as polar orbits, which are useful for earth observation. Also, the neighbouring Atlantic means launches can take place over the ocean and sparsely populated areas, which is important for safety.

Planning is underway in Sutherland, Cornwall and Prestwick to develop space port sites that tap into these geographic and industry advantages. The ports promise to bring jobs to the local area and wider economic benefits for example, through the use of satellite data by businesses and the public sector, via tourism to the space ports and by inspiring science and technology careers.

Sutherland Space Hub

Who is developing it and how is it funded?

The Sutherland Space Hub is being developed by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). It is supported by £17.3 million funding, which includes £2.5 million from the UK Government, £9.8 million from its own budget, and the remaining £5 million is being sought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The Government has also awarded UK-based company Orbex a £5.5 million grant to develop a new rocket for the site. US company Lockheed Martin, was awarded two grants totalling £23.5 million to develop launch operations at Sutherland and a new satellite deployment system.

What will the port be used for?

The spaceport will be a vertical launch site on the A’Mhoine peninsula. Vertical launch means a traditional rocket launch where the rocket takes off upright. The spaceport will be used for launching small satellites and it is expected that the site could host six launches per year.

Orbex recently unveiled designs for its new Prime rocket to be used at the site. It will be built at a new factory in Forres, near Inverness, and is said to be the first commercial rocket engine to use bio-propane, which has lower carbon emissions compared to traditional rocket fuels.

What is the progress so far?

The specific site is owned by the Melness Crofters Estate, which has agreed to work with HIE to develop terms for a lease. Some members and local residents oppose the development however, raising concerns about the impact on environment, local roads and crofting rights.

HIE says it is working on a planning proposal which it expects to submit in late 2019, following community engagement and consultation. The FAQ page and community newsletters on HIE’s website provides more information about proposed plans.

HIE says the first launch could potentially take place in the “early 2020s”.

Horizontal launch sites

Horizontal launches involve a plane taking off from a conventional runway carrying a rocket with it. A second launch event occurs while the plane is in flight and launches the rocket into space to deploy the satellite. Horizontal launches are lower cost than vertical launches, can be carried out more frequently, with less fuel and noise, but are limited to smaller loads. Horizontal launch sites can be integrated into existing airport facilities and therefore do not necessarily require extensive new developments like vertical spaceports do.

The UK Government announced in July 2018 a £2 million fund to help develop horizontal launch sites in Cornwall, Glasgow Prestwick and Snowdonia.

Cornwall and Newquay Airport are developing Spaceport Cornwall, in partnership with Cornwall Council, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Virgin Orbit and Goonhilly Earth Station. The site aims to be ready by 2020-2021 and will be used for launching small satellites.

Virgin Orbit is developing a small-satellite launch system using a modified Boeing 747 aeroplane (called Cosmic Girl) that carries a rocket (called Launcher One). A test flight was carried out in California in November 2018 but there are still more tests to go. Cornwall will be one of a few global locations where Virgin Orbit launches from.

Glasgow Prestwick Airport, currently owned by the Scottish Government, is leading work to develop a horizontal spaceport in collaboration with South Ayrshire Council, Scottish Enterprise, and a host of industry partners. The airport says the site could be used for launching satellites, micro gravity experiments and even passenger spaceflight.

Both Cornwall and Prestwick airports already have long runways suitable for horizontal launches along with coastal locations. Prestwick airport says an independent assessment confirmed that most of the infrastructure required for space launch capabilities is already in place.

How will the spaceports be regulated?

The Space Industry Act 2018 establishes the Secretary of State as the regulator for UK space ports with a primary duty to secure public safety. Regulatory functions are expected to be delegated to the UK Space Agency and the Civil Aviation Authority.

The Act creates a licencing framework for space flight activities conducted in the UK and sets some conditions that the regulator must consider, including environmental and safety assessments. Additionally, all space ports will have to comply with existing environmental, planning and health and safety legislation.

The licencing framework is not yet in place and there are still details to be set by secondary legislation. The Government has issued guidance for prospective licences and said it plans to publish and consult on detailed regulations in 2019. So far there has been one call for evidence regarding policy development for the insurance and liability provisions under the Act. Cornwall and Isles of Sicily LEP has called on the Government to bring forward the legislation quickly to avoid losing competitiveness for UK space ports.

Will UK spaceports be used to launch people into space?

As the cost of access to space gets cheaper, space travel and tourism is becoming a real future possibility. There are no specific plans yet for UK spaceports to be used to launch people into space and the launches proposed at Sutherland are not of suitable size for space travel. Glasgow Prestwick Airport however says its site could be used for passenger spaceflight, and the Act is broad enough to contemplate this possibility.

Further reading

Space Industry Bill 2017-2019, House of Commons Library.

Georgina Hutton is a researcher specialising in science and the environment at the House of Commons Library.

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