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The Great British Space Age: How spaceport in Sutherland will boost UK industry

Crispin Andrews

A concept image showing a Lockheed Martin rocket lifting off in Scotland (Credit: Lockheed Martin)
A concept image showing a Lockheed Martin rocket lifting off in Scotland (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

In July, the government named Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands as the location for the UK’s first ever spaceport.

It was hailed as the start of the ‘Great British Space Age’ – but, in truth, a host of innovative companies has been pushing the UK space industry to new heights for several years. Now, they are perfectly placed to take advantage of the new spaceport. We spoke to firms behind some of the most inventive, audacious and exciting engineering in a sector that is ready for lift-off.

Read part one, on satellite technology pioneer Oxford Space Systems, here.

Read part two, on the UK firms opening the door to space, here.

Read part three, on the companies tackling the satellite backlog, here.

The £3.8bn opportunity

According to the UK Space Agency, over half of the world’s small satellites are already made in the UK. The government wants them to be launched there too – up to 2,000 by 2030. The agency believes that the spaceflight market is potentially worth £3.8bn to the UK economy over the next decade.

In July, it announced plans to build the country’s first spaceport in Sutherland in Scotland. A consortium of companies, including Lockheed Martin and Orbex, will benefit from £31.5m in funding to develop launch systems for the site. Smaller grants will assist the development of horizontal launch pads, where rockets are launched from planes, in Scotland, Cornwall and Wales. 

“Companies involved have an opportunity to find new ways of building infrastructure and speeding up turnaround between launches,” says Stuart Martin, from the Satellite Applications Catapult. Martin, who is also chairman of the Space Leadership Council Industry Advisory Group on Low Cost Access to Space, adds: “They will also be looking at new ways of storing hazardous chemicals, refuelling, and of course the actual process of getting the rocket vertical.”

A Lockheed Martin spokesperson says the biggest challenge is how to unite a large number of complex systems and get them working together. “You have to build and manage infrastructure for transportation, fuelling, payload integration and maintenance. You need a launch pad and tower that can withstand the heat, vibration and pressure of multiple launches. And you have all kinds of sensors tracking dozens of variables from the status of the rocket to weather to range safety items. The launch control centre has to be able to monitor and manage all of those elements safely, reliably and cost-effectively.” 

Stuart Martin adds that another hurdle is the regulatory framework, which is not yet in place. “It’s difficult to work on regulations when we don’t yet know what operational procedure will be,” he says. “Working on operational procedures and regulations at the same time is difficult but it can be done.”

A pathfinder mission is planned for the early 2020s, during which a miniaturised microwave radiometer instrument from Orbital Micro Systems will collect temperature, humidity and precipitation data. Virgin has announced that it plans to launch satellites into space, from the Cornwall spaceport, by 2021.

“There are still things to be worked out – mechanics, logistics, maybe new processes, robotics and composite materials,” says Martin. “But I expect the first flight to take place in the early 2020s.”


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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