The UK rejoins the space race

Virgin Orbit’s flight is expected to be just the beginning of the country’s launch capabilities. Two other spaceports are currently under development, one on the northernmost tip of mainland Britain in Sutherland, Scotland, and another in the Shetland Islands, further north off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more classic vertical rocket launches as early as next year. Sutherland is said to be home to Orbex, a British launch company based in Forres, near the Scottish city of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights from US company ABL Space Systems.

Another British launch company, Edinburgh-based Skyrora, is also hoping to go into orbit next year with a mobile launch platform that can be packed into a shipping container and which it says could be used from a number of locations . In the coming weeks, the company is to carry out a test flight into space with a small rocket that will briefly reach a cosmic altitude of 102 kilometers, starting from Iceland.

When these companies are successful, there are fortunes to be had. In the absence of a viable launch site in Europe (sites in Germany, Portugal and elsewhere are being considered), rather than shipping their satellites to the US or elsewhere, European space companies could make a relatively shorter trip to the UK. “We see a fantastic opportunity to be one of the few launch states that can serve the European market,” Shaw said. “If we get there first, a lot of European companies will come to us for small satellite launches.”

This not only simplifies logistics, but also means satellite operators can book trips on smaller rockets at shorter notice, rather than having to wait for larger rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the US. “You could wait up to two or three years to get started,” says Shaw. Smaller rockets could instead mean launch capabilities are available in days or weeks. Any UK company will hope to capture this market. “There’s really healthy competition out there,” Shaw says.

Cape Canaveral won’t be – at most a few launches a month from all the UK spaceports combined. Still, it’s an intriguing time, beginning with Virgin Orbit’s efforts this fall. “Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off Russian launch capabilities from the west, there has been an even greater demand for launch capabilities in the western hemisphere,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of space consulting firm Astralytical. “A launch facility in the UK could help ease the bottleneck on launches. There is a need to catch up.”

It is an uncertain time in the UK, with a new government following almost immediately after the end of the Elizabethan era. Now, under the reign of King Charles III, a new age begins – one that is not bound by the borders of the earth. The UK has long been on the verge of becoming a space nation again. “It’s going to be absolutely amazing,” says Shaw.

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