Britain Is Getting Prepared for Its Area Race
Cornwall, in the far south west of England, is known for its ancient fishing villages and cozy, cliff-lined beaches. Soon it could be the setting for something completely different: a small but growing space industry.
One day in a year or two, a modified Boeing 747 is expected to take off from the long runway at the region’s airport, fly over the Atlantic and soar into the stratosphere. There a missile will fall under a wing, fire its engines and put a load of small satellites into orbit as the plane returns to the airport.
After six years of planning and fundraising, construction of a spaceport begins this month at Newquay Airport, with a budget of around £ 28 million ($ 28 million).
The anchor tenant is expected to be Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin universe. The selling point: putting satellites into orbit via airplanes can be done more quickly and with less infrastructure than earth-based missiles. It plans to bring his 747 (called Cosmic Girl) and other equipment tested in the Mojave Desert to the UK with the help of £ 7.35 million from the UK space agency.
“In the beginning people laughed at us,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of engagement at Spaceport Cornwall, the developer. “It took a lot of work to convince a lot of people.”
Among the better arguments: The spaceport, which is owned by the local government, could ultimately offer 150 good jobs in a region that, despite its charm, is dependent on poorly paid seasonal tourism jobs.
Britain is doubling its always risky space business after years of neglect. In addition to Cornwall, the government is putting money into several other potential launch sites, including one on the remote north coast of Scotland, tailored to make an environmentally friendly missile nearby.
This is all new for a country that does not have a long history of rocket science or satellite launching into space. The case for spaceports in Britain is far from proven. In fact, some analysts say there are too many such facilities already in place, including in the United States.
The first – and so far only – satellite-based rocket manufactured in Great Britain was launched in 1971 from Woomera, Australia. This program, called Black Arrow, was retired after four launches because it was not cost-effective.
“You have to get stuck in that the UK is within a few years of the satellite launch,” said Doug Millard, space curator at the Science Museum in London. “It’s something that, not so long ago, would never have been considered.”
Brexit is an important reason for the trend reversal. The decision to withdraw from the European Union has raised awareness that Britain, which has relied largely on European and American space programs for services such as satellite navigation, would be at risk without its own space infrastructure. That year, the Space Agency’s budget was increased 10 percent to £ 556 million (still a small fraction of NASA’s $ 22 billion).
Brexit “gave a real incentive to think about what we actually need as a country in space,” said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK space agency, in an interview.
But the decision to look up at the sky also coincides with the increasing commercial use of land around the world, encouraged by deeply pocketed investors like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mr. Branson, but also by a number less prominent entrepreneurs and companies.
Crucial was the emergence of much smaller and cheaper satellites, some the size of a shoebox and relatively small costing $ 1 million or less. Some are used for observation, for example to measure how much oil is stored in a tank farm, valuable data for energy investors. Others are said to provide internet connectivity on earth and an essential link in the burgeoning internet of things that is essential for self-driving cars and smart kitchens.
“We are at the beginning of this journey,” said Mark Boggett, general manager of Seraphim Capital in London, which is investing a US $ 90 million space fund.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration agreed in July to spend £ 500 million to acquire 45 percent of OneWeb, a satellite operator.
OneWeb filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, but is in the hottest part of the satellite industry: creating so-called constellations, blizzards of coordinated low-orbit satellites designed to provide extensive coverage for purposes such as expanding the Internet to remote regions.
OneWeb builds its satellites in a factory owned by Airbus in Florida. The hope of the UK government and the space community is that OneWeb will build a future generation of satellites in the UK.
Overall, the government is trying to support activities in what is known as a “new space,” a more agile and commercial approach to an industry traditionally dominated by government and military programs.
“OneWeb and what we’re doing at launch is about playing a really big role in this new economy,” said Turnock.
While the UK has participated in prestigious space activities such as manufacturing a Mars rover for an upcoming Euro-Russian mission, it has some catching up to do. However, aerospace professionals say the direction the industry is headed could play to their advantage.
The launch vehicles Britain is trying to promote would be suitable for smaller satellites operating in low-earth orbit about 800 miles in altitude, compared to about 22,000 miles for telecommunications giants, which sometimes cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Smaller satellites also have a much shorter lifespan than the larger ones, which means more of them and more launches are required. Virgin Orbit plans to bill $ 12 million to launch a payload of nearly 700 pounds of satellites into space.
Nearby launch sites meet a need for companies like In-Space Missions, a space company based in Hampshire outside London. Doug Liddle, the executive director, said the company had traveled all the way to New Zealand to launch a satellite this year, only to lose it if the missile failed.
The new space economy is also more affordable for medium-sized countries like the UK. “The small satellite approach now means that we won’t be spending our entire national budget on our space program,” said Martin Sweeting, founder and chairman of a UK university spin-off called Surrey Satellite Technology, a pioneer in small satellites.
Space is also becoming far more accessible to startups like Open Cosmos, which offer to build satellites and arrange their launch and early operation at a cost of $ 10 million or less. The company is one of many technology companies in Harwell, a community near Oxford University.
Neighbors include customers like Lacuna Space, who plan to use satellites for a number of uses like tracking cattle on huge Latin American ranches, and potential suppliers like Oxford Space Systems, which builds satellite-mounted antennas that deploy once in orbit around data to send to ground receivers.
“It’s a small ecosystem. Everyone knows each other, ”said Rafel Jordá Siquier, the 31-year-old founder of Open Cosmos.
But not all companies are start-ups. Airbus, the giant French manufacturer of commercial aircraft, is also a major satellite manufacturer, employing 3,500 people in the UK.
The company had been nervous about the impact Brexit had on these operations, but the government’s move to OneWeb provided some reassurance.
“Investing in OneWeb and the UK’s focus on space makes Airbus,” Look, the UK is a really good place to invest, “said Richard Franklin, UK director of space and defense for Airbus.
However, Britain’s ambitions are exposed to great unknowns and risks.
The starting technologies it relies on are not proven. Virgin Orbit’s first test that year in the US stuttered when the main rocket engine shut down. And the coronavirus pandemic has put a heavy financial toll on Mr. Branson’s empire, including the flagship Virgin Atlantic. To bolster the finances of the airline and other companies, the entrepreneur sold stakes in Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company, valued at around $ 500 million.
But Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president for special projects, said the 747 would come to Cornwall “when they are ready and need us”.
The satellite market is both competitive and turbulent. Tesla’s founder Elon Musk, whose SpaceX brought US astronauts to the International Space Station and safely returned to Earth, is building his own Starlink mega-constellation satellite system. Other tech companies are likely to follow suit, while many countries can now build satellites.
“One of the nice things about little sats is that anyone can do one,” said Alexandre Najjar, senior consultant at Euroconsult, a market research company.
Still, UK space entrepreneurs say a launchpad close to home could give them an advantage.
“If we can get in a van and take our spaceship to Scotland or Cornwall, the whole process will be a lot easier,” said Mr. Liddle, the satellite builder.