British space companies have high hopes of opening operational UK spaceports by the year 2022. There are already several future spaceports under construction across the UK that are expected to be ready to receive and launch rockets soon. Some have even carried out small suborbital test flights. For example, an Edinburgh-based company carried out a UK rocket launch of a small suborbital craft from a mobile launch complex in Shetland in 2020.
However, with several companies in the running, the race to be the first commercial UK space company is intensifying. In fact, many of these companies are in the final stages of developing their launch sites and are waiting only for legal and environmental concerns to be resolved. We take a look at the main players and the likelihood of British space companies entering the commercial space travel arena in the near future.
UK Rocket Launch Plans for British Spaceports
Currently, Britain has seven potential launch sites that are waiting to become fully operational. Some of these are closer to launching commercial flights than others, and there are various disputes over who will get there first. Some of the main focus in the British space industry has been on Spaceport Cornwall and two Scottish spaceports, the Shetland Space Centre and Space Hub Sutherland.
Spaceport Cornwall has recently received a lot of coverage because of its plans to collaborate with Virgin to launch commercial space flights from its base in Newquay. Virgin Galactica recently launched a test flight with Galactica’s founder, Richard Branson, on board. This small spaceplane completed a short space flight and successfully returned to Earth. While this initial flight was launched from the USA, it is hoped that, by early 2022, Virgin Galactica will launch regular flights from Spaceport Cornwall.
Currently, Spaceport Cornwall is in the process of applying for its governmental license to legally launch commercial flights. Legislation about the regulation of commercial space travel is still to be put through the UK parliament. In recent years the UK has poured a lot of public funding into space travel. This has led to a boom in space research and space start-ups.
Spaceport Cornwell is also undergoing some renovations to upgrade the station. These renovations aim to make the spaceport more sustainable. They are also currently working on building a facility for satellite integration. This would allow a British satellite to attach to a rocket and join the launch as a passenger. Spaceport Cornwall is also, currently, the only UK spaceport with horizontal launch pads and capacity.
Shetland Space Centre
Shetland Space Centre is another of the hot contenders to be one of Britain’s first commercial spaceports. Shetland Space Centre has plans for a vertical launch site for both orbital and suborbital rockets. The center has paired up with Lockheed Martin and hopes to begin commercial flights in 2022. Some launches have already taken place from Shetland, and the center already works closely alongside many European developers.
However, there are some challenges faced by the company. For example, some conservation companies feel that the prospective spaceport presents a threat to local wildlife. The Shetland Islands, as well as other parts of rural Scotland, are home to certain endangered species.
Some organizations also suggest that rocket launches should only take place during certain seasons. They hope this would reduce the impact on local wildlife populations and would not disturb population numbers. However, despite these challenges, Shetland Space Centre has obtained legal permission to operate a space technology testing center.
SpacePort Sutherland is funded by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise and plans to fully equip an operational spaceport from their Sutherland base by 2022. SpacePort Sutherland plans to operate British spaceflights from a vertical launch pad. The site will only launch small rockets weighing less than 550kg.
Like Shetland Space Centre, however, SpacePort Sutherland has some contenders. A legal challenge has been brought against the company by the local landowner, Anders Povlsen. Povlsen claims that Space Port Sutherland will cause environmental damage in the surrounding area. However, Povlsen has also invested funds into Shetland Space Centre, which has drawn the majority of criticism from environmentalists. Despite these disputes, it is still widely believed that all three of these companies will receive government licenses from UK regulatory boards.
Other UK space locations in the running for a British rocket launch include places like Spaceport Snowdonia and Prestwick Spaceport. These also hope to be operational by around 2022-23. These spaceports will also focus on launching both orbital and suborbital rockets.
The UK space industry is primed for a UK rocket launch in the near future. Although it is close, it is still to be seen which company will get there first. After this, the companies will face a long and interesting road to providing viable commercial space travel on a regular basis.
Final Call: Are you interested in the future of UK space travel? Would you be first in line to book tickets on a commercial space flight? Share your thoughts in the comments!