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UK space race heats up as Skyrora sets sights on 2022 launch

Professional Engineering

How a launch by UK rocket firm Skyrora could look (Credit: Skyrora)
How a launch by UK rocket firm Skyrora could look (Credit: Skyrora)

The UK space race has heated up today (12 October) after rocket company Skyrora agreed a decade-long deal for multiple launches from the Shetland Island of Unst – including one next year.

The announcement sets up a race between the Edinburgh-headquartered firm and Orbex, another Scottish rocket company aiming for its first launch next year. Whichever project wins will be the first to launch a rocket from UK soil.  

“We have made no secret of our ambition to be the first company to launch from UK soil, so it's really exciting to agree to this multi-launch deal with [spaceport] SaxaVord,” said Skyrora founder and CEO Volodymyr Levykin.  

“We are proud to be at the forefront of space innovation in the UK, deploying our assets and helping to unlock exciting opportunities as part of the new space economy. The UK is a world leader in space technology, and this latest move brings us another crucial step closer to offering a significant space service from our own soil.” 

The XL rocket launch programme from Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands, will gradually speed up throughout the decade. By 2030, Skyrora aims to launch 16 rockets a year.  

Speaking to Professional Engineering earlier this year, Orbex CEO Chris Larmour said the firm already had six launch contracts, with the first planned for late 2022. Launches of the Prime ‘micro-launcher’ from Sutherland spaceport in the Highlands will ramp up “gradually”, he said – one or two in the first couple of years, reaching full ‘cadence’ by 2024 or 2025.  

The two companies are taking some non-conventional approaches to space flight. Orbex will 3D print its engines, for example, while Skyrora hopes its versatile upper stage will enable multi-purpose launches.  

According to a study by Scottish Enterprise last year, income from Scotland's space sector could reach over £2bn by 2030. Data solutions to help combat climate change could double that. The SaxaVord spaceport is expected to create 140 jobs locally, with an additional 70 jobs across Shetland, while Skyrora aims to create over 170 jobs by 2030.  

Skyrora has been testing increasingly large rockets with short high-altitude launches since 2018. Last year, it conducted the first rocket test on UK soil in 50 years, as well as launching its Skylark Micro from Iceland.  

The three-stage Skyrora XL rocket stands over 22m, and can carry up to 315kg to orbit. Last year, the firm completed trials of its third stage, including its orbital transfer vehicle (OTV). Once in orbit, the OTV will be able to refire its engines about 15 times to complete extra tasks – acting as a ‘space tug’, carrying out maintenance, or de-orbiting defunct satellites. 

For the proposed 2022 launch, Skyrora plans to fuel the XL with sustainable rocket fuel alternative Ecosene. Made from waste plastic such as polystyrene, the fuel could prevent more than 3,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic going to landfill by 2030, just through use on Skyrora flights.  

“The space industry has a responsibility to commit to sustainability,” said Levykin. “Not just through enabling applications and services – such as through Earth observation, that can help pre-empt and mitigate the impact of climate change – but also by reducing the environmental impact of its own operations. With our OTV and Ecosene, we are contributing to this new space purpose, helping to tackle both the space junk problem and the impact of traditional fuels." 

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


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