By Evgenia Filimianova
The UK’s first orbital rocket launch could blast off from the Shetland Islands this summer, as industry bosses expect to become licensed within months, British lawmakers have heard.
The Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee met on May 17 to discuss the future of the UK’s space strategy and satellite infrastructure.
The MPs heard evidence from chiefs at SaxaVord Spaceport, a multi-use, vertical space launch site in the UK located on the island of Unst in Shetland, Scotland.
SaxaVord’s CEO Frank Strang and Launch Operations Manager Dave Balance spoke about the significance of the spaceport’s location.
“Space is about geography, maths, and physics … and the geography doesn’t lie,” said Strang, followed by an explanation from Balance.
There are two reasons for choosing Shetland, he said, with one being the “type of orbits we are targeting” and the “further north you are, the better.”
Secondly, Shetland provides a clear area to launch, making it a very safe place to launch, Balance told the committee.
SaxaVord’s bosses also told the committee they would like to attempt a first rocket launch before the end of 2023.
SaxaVord is currently waiting for a number of licenses to be granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), starting with a “spaceport licence.”
A spaceport license allows an organisation to operate a site from which spacecraft or carrier aircraft can be launched, or a site at which controlled and planned landings of spacecraft can take place.
Spaceports that can demonstrate they have the appropriate infrastructure, equipment, and services can be licensed for vertical or horizontal launches, or potentially both.
The UK’s only operating spaceport is in Cornwall, which is built for horizontal launches, which means that a plane takes off from a runway, carrying a rocket with it. Once the plane is safely away from urban areas, the rocket can detach, ignite, and head into space.
Balance told the MPs that SaxaVord was “progressing the license well at the minute” with the CAA.
The UK needs a license for the SaxaVord spaceport sooner rather than later, said Strang.
“I would like to see a licence in three months,” he told MPs.
When asked by Stephen Metcalfe MP whether a delay in licensing will have an impact on the UK’s viability as a space nation, Strang agreed.
The CAA doesn’t foresee any particular problem in licensing Saxavord in the summer, “assuming all the tests can be met,” according to its Head of Space Regulation Colin Macleod.
‘Open for Business’
The first satellite launch attempt from the UK failed in January during its second stage. According to operator Virgin Orbit, the rocket, which took off from Spaceport Cornwall, suffered an “anomaly” that resulted in the satellites it was carrying failing to reach orbit, ending the mission.
Science minister George Freeman told the committee: “As a result of the Virgin launch [Spaceport Cornwall is] in a number of important conversations with launch parties both here and around the world who want to consider it as a base for launch. Indeed, I’ve just come back from Japan where Jaxa [the Japanese space agency] said, ‘Look, we’re very keen to pursue Jaxa launches from the UK.’”
“We see Spaceport Cornwall not just as a lunch centre but a hub for the commercial small companies that are emerging in this space,” the minister added.
SaxaVord spaceport works with nine international companies on the launch and three on data, Strang told the MPs, stressing that “they’ve all come to us.”
“They are from Germany, France, Italy, India, Turkey, and America obviously,” he added.
The space industry is moving quickly and “we need to work with the regulator to show the world we are open for business because there is a lot of young companies who want to come here,” Strang told the MPs.
There are seven proposed spaceport locations in the UK, with five based in Scotland.