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Great Britain gets serious about launch

The UK Space Agency is seeking to support the development of small launchers and suborbital vehicles in the country through grants and with legislation to establish a regulatory regime for such vehicles. (credit: UK Space Agency)

Sir Stephen Dalton, president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, made a simple, if futile, request at the start of his organization’s “Commercialisation of Space” conference last week in London. “If we can avoid the term ‘Brexit’ for these two days, it would be absolutely fantastic,” he said, “but it doubt it somehow.”

He was correct. The ongoing negotiations about the United Kingdom’s impending withdrawal from the European Union—Brexit—came up repeatedly over the course of the two-day conference. Much of that discussion is rooted in the uncertainty the terms of that exit will have on the British space industry, including its ability to participate in EU-funded space efforts like the Copernicus series of Earth science satellites or the Galileo navigation satellite program.

For others, though, Brexit could be an opportunity for the British space industry to stand out from the rest of Europe. “It forces us to rethink and look elsewhere, and to be ready to engage more globally,” said Richard Peckham, chairman of the industry trade group UKSpace, in a November 21 conference talk.

One area where British industry and government have taken the lead on a more global outlook is in the launch sector. A growing number of British ventures are developing small launch vehicles they hope to launch from spaceports in the country in the next few years, largely targeting the growing small satellite market. Those efforts, though, will depend on support from the British government in terms of regulations and funding.

A large number of small launchers

Among those companies planning launch vehicles is Orbex. The company has said little about its efforts so far, but offered new details in a presentation at the conference November 22 by its founder and CEO, Chris Larmour.

“We’re quite confident that this is a good business opportunity,” he said of plans to develop a small launch vehicle capable of placing up to 165 kilograms into polar orbit, launching from a proposed site on the north coast of Scotland. Orbex’s plans call for performing a dozen launches a year, but breaking even on as few as three a year.

The vehicle is under development at a 1,200-square-meter facility, with a separate 1,000-square-meter engine test range. Larmour said the company has been focusing on the vehicle’s 30,000-newton engine, which has completed 45 engine firings to date.

Those tests, he said, included a recent one with a premature shutdown during a test. “I was really proud of” that shutdown, he said, “because it shut down and didn’t blow up. The engineers were all disappointed but I was actually super happy that I had been paying them to do their jobs well.”

Larmour said Orbex has letters of intent with a number of potential customers, and hopes to sign its first contract, for a 50-kilogram science payload from an unnamed organization, by the end of the year. The company is in the process of closing a fourth round of funding, he said, primarily from wealthy individuals but also from venture capital firms. Those rounds, Larmour said later, were combined analogous to a “Series A-” round.

Orbex, though, is keeping a lot of details under wraps. Larmour didn’t disclose exactly how much money the company had raised, or when he expected the vehicle to enter service. He also didn’t disclose the fuel that the engine will use, other than to say it is neither methane nor RP-1 but remains liquid at the cryogenic temperatures of liquid oxygen. Even the rocket’s name is not disclosed.

Orbex is one of several companies with ambitions for launch vehicles operating from UK spaceports. Orbital Access is developing an air-launch system that would allow launches to inclinations other than polar orbits. “We are ongoing in our work around the definition of the program,” said Stuart McIntyre, CEO of Orbital Access, in a conference presentation.

A concept he showed in his talk, and on the company’s website, involves a reusable spaceplane that would be carried aloft by a widebody airplane (in one illustration, what appeared to be an MD-11) that could place up to 500 kilograms into a Sun-synchronous orbit before returning to Earth for reuse.

Orbital Access, McIntyre said, has a long-term interest in making use of the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), an engine under development for years by another UK company, Reaction Engines. “Our program has been designed to complement the SABRE development program,” he said.

SABRE has, for many years, linked to a spaceplane concept called Skylon that offered aircraft-like operations and low costs of space access. But Reaction Engines is not limiting SABRE to Skylon, or even to spaceplanes in general.

“We’re a little bit agnostic as to how you could use this,” Mark Wood, COO and engineering director at Reaction Engines, said at the conference. Space access is one potential use of SABRE, he said, but the other is hypersonics.

“Why do we want that?” he said of SABRE’s application to hypersonic vehicles. “It’s really about stealth and speed. We believe our engine can fulfill that part of the market.” There’s particular interest in hypersonic applications of SABRE in the US, he added.

Regulation and funding

While those and other launch ventures face financial and technical challenges to developing their vehicles, they won’t get off the ground, figuratively or literally, without support from the British government in the form of regulations to support commercial launches from the country as well as, to some degree, financial support.

The government, though, is ready to help. In February, the UK Space Agency issued a call for proposals for grants to support development of launch capabilities from the UK by 2020. The proposals set no fixed amount of funding, but offered a guideline of about £10 million (US$13 million).

“We had incredibly strong interest” in response to the call, said Claire Barcham, satellite launch program director at the UK Space Agency, during a November 22 conference presentation. The agency received 26 proposals, she said, which included companies from the UK as well as Europe and the US.

“We have selected a small number of these for further consideration, which we’re taking forward at the moment,” she said, not naming the companies chosen or the exact number. “We hope to be in a position quite shortly to announce the outcome of that process.”

That financial support, some in industry said at the meeting, is required for spaceport and launch venture in the country to advance. “If you look at all of the current viable spaceports and launchers in the world, without exception, they are all supported by their respective governments,” said Patrick Wood, director of international business development for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which has shown an interest in supporting a UK launch site. “We would look for appropriate investment to support the required private funding.”

Separate from the financial support is the need for a regulatory structure to enable commercial launches to take place from the UK. The British Parliament is current considering what’s known as the Space Industry Bill that would create a system for licensing suborbital and orbital launches and their spaceports.

“This bill is, importantly, providing the framework for a number of things, but particularly for launch services in the UK,” said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, in a November 21 speech at the conference. “This will build on our strengths in small satellite technology and satellite services, and give certainty and clarity to new space businesses that want to operate in the UK.”

The bill, Turnock said, is making progress in the House of Lords, and is expected to enter the House of Commons in December. Others at the conference said the bill has seen few changes since its introduction and is moving quickly largely because it is noncontroversial. Barring any setbacks, it could become law by early next year.

One interesting aspect of the bill is that it would split regulatory responsibilities between two government agencies. Suborbital spaceplanes would be regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, part of the Department for Transport, while vertically launched rockets would be under the jurisdiction of the UK Space Agency. That’s in contrast to the US, where all commercial launches are regulated by a single agency, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation within the FAA.

That create an interesting regulatory edge case: who handles vertically launched suborbital vehicles, like Blue Origin’s New Shepard? Paul Cremin, commercial spaceflight regulation and policy lead at the Department for Transport, said all vertically-launched vehicles would be handled by the UK Space Agency. That creates the possibility that one class of suborbital vehicle—a spaceplane like SpaceShipTwo—would be regulated by one office, while another, serving the same market, would be regulated by another.

Cremin, asked about this during a November 22 panel discussion, downplayed any possibility of different regulatory treatment between the two agencies. “Whether you’re vertical or whether you’re horizontal is almost irrespective in terms of how regulators deal with you,” he said. “You’ll be coming through the same regulatory portal, and it’s all about the risk to third parties.”

He and others emphasized that the UK would take a “light touch” approach to launch regulations, focusing on third parties, much as the FAA does in the US. “As far as possible, that regulatory oversight will be as relaxed as possible,” he said.

Passage of the bill, though, won’t mean the UK will be instantly ready to license commercial launches. Additional work, including secondary legislation, will be needed to put into place all the processes needed to license and oversee commercial spaceports and launches.

“The regulatory framework will be in place by the end of 2019, early 2020,” Cremin said. “Once the regulatory framework is in place, we can facilitate launches.”

“It takes a while, then, to be able to license that first launch,” added Peter Lindsay, head of regulatory reform at the UK Space Agency, citing the need for regulators to build up experience with that new licensing process. “So we might not be as quick for that first launch as we’d like to be in the future.”

But why invest so much time and money into spaceports and launch systems, given the large number of small launch systems under development worldwide? The UK Space Agency’s Barcham said it fills a gap in the country’s space capabilities.

“We have a thriving value chain for small satellites and their services in the UK,” she said, calling the lack of a launch capability a “missing link” for the industry. “We would like to enable small satellite launch, and suborbital spaceflight, from UK spaceports to help us to plug that gap in our value chain.”

Others invoked that forbidden word to justify those efforts. “Brexit: there’s a controversial topic,” Orbital Access’ McIntyre said. “But what better time to build a little bit of national pride in our aerospace capability?”


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