Hot on the heels of a triumphant week for home-grown satellite technology, the UK government is set to announce on Tuesday a plan to host the first-ever launches from UK soil – with the establishment of a spaceport by 2018.
Eight possible locations for the site, capable of handling runway take-off and landing operations like those being readied by Virgin Galactic in New Mexico, have been identified.
UK minister for universities and science David Willetts – an enthusiastic champion of space investment and thought to be a possible successor to European Space Agency chief Jean-Jacques Dordain – is headlining a Tuesday conference at Farnborough on the future of UK spaceflight.
"There are eight locations that meet the proposed criteria for a spaceport. These will be announced on Tuesday at the Farnborough Space Day conference, along with the economic and technical context," says the UK Space Agency.
As Willetts speaks, two groundbreaking satellites will be starting their second week in orbit, after their 8 July launch as secondary payloads on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Surrey Satellite Technology’s TechDemoSat-1 will validate a basket of new technologies. And, the craft is the first to be controlled from the UK’s new ground station at Harwell, near Oxford.
Also aloft is UKube-1, built for the UK Space Agency by Clyde Space of Glasgow. Scotland’s first satellite is built to the three-unit “cubesat” format, but the 10x10x30cm package features a range of payloads – including a test of the feasibility of using cosmic radiation to generate random numbers, a holy grail of cryptography.
Dr Chris Castelli, acting director of programmes at UKSA, says “UKube-1 is an excellent example of how access to space can be made cheaper.”
UKSA head David Parker says that while the UK’s longstanding position against funding development of new rockets won’t change, the availability of low-cost access to space has become a concern for the government and the UK space industry.
Virgin Galactic is best known for its space tourism plans, which will send six passengers on short sub-orbital journeys aboard a spacecraft carried to some 50,000ft by a jet aircraft before being released and continuing on rocket power, with a gliding return to its New Mexico spaceport runway – possibly starting by the end of the year. But the same technology could be used to launch small satellites, more flexibly – and probably more cheaply – than by conventional rockets.