UK ministries of defence and education to consider funding launchers

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The UK government is ready to provide seed-corn funding for indigenous launch vehicle development, for the first time since its Blue Streak ballistic missile programme was cancelled in April 1960.

The new funding could come from the UK's Ministry of Defence and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), if the two government branches' joint consideration of rocket proposals approves anything and if the money is available.

After 1960 the UK helped form the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) with other western European countries in 1964. The de Havilland-built Blue Streak was to become the first stage of ELDO's Europa rocket. Since the UK's departure from ELDO in 1973 the country's policy has opposed funding rockets, although it continued to have a small role in the European Space Agency's Ariane programme.

The only funding for an indigenous launcher since then was a £32,000 ($64,000) award made in 2003 by the then Department of Trade and Industry for a commercial feasibility study and some design work. That was focused on using commercial off-the-shelf components for award winner Cambridge based-Microlaunch Systems' proposed micro-satellite launcher. Micro satellites weigh about 50kg (110lb).

The prospect of UK funding for a small satellite launcher is the result of the nation's ongoing review of government policy, which will see a new space strategy up to 2010 announced by year's end.

During this process the House of Commons science and technology committee recommended an end to the opposition to launcher development. The government's 9 October response to that was that it was ready "to explore opportunities in the small satellites launcher market".

The satellite industry's definition of a small spacecraft is one with a mass of less than 500kg. The UK government's civil space co-ordinator, the British National Space Centre, says the DIUS and Ministry of Defence "will discuss potential seed-corn funding, if good ideas come forward and if sufficient funds are available. The prize approach will be kept under review."

The science and technology committee also recommends consideration of a prize approach to encourage UK launcher development. Existing commercial market launchers for small satellites include, for payloads to geostationary transfer orbit, the India Space Research Organisation's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and the US company Orbital Sciences' Taurus while for lofting such payloads to LEO there is Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 1, Russia's Schtil and Start, Orbital Sciences' Pegasusand Minotaur, and Israel's Next.