UK spaceport plans geared to boost small satellite business

Farnborough
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The UK is laying the groundwork for a commercial space transport industry by opening a consultation on a site for a spaceport. And it is looking across the Atlantic for guidance on how to regulate the nascent business of ferrying passengers into space – with operations possible from 2018.

A memorandum of understanding signed at the Farnborough air show will see the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the UK Space Agency work with the US Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that operations are safe without keeping companies Earth-bound with excessive regulation.

Aviation minister Robert Goodwill – speaking in place of David Willetts, the science minister who lost his job in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle – said the UK goal was to command 10% of a global space business estimated to be worth some £400 billion ($680 billion) by 2030. Goodwill underscored the UK government’s appreciation of the fact that the spaceplane technology for so-called “space tourism” was “just over the horizon” and that it is expected to be adaptable to launch small satellites. Critically, he said, enabling more low-cost launches of small satellites – a UK industrial strength – was a key to that strategy.

The UK is looking to learn from best practice, which at this point means the FAA – the only safety authority yet to establish rules on so-called space tourism. As FAA associate administrator George Nield said at the show during the launch of the UK’s discussion paper on spaceplane operations, it needs to take a different approach to space tourism from aviation, by regulating operations rather than the equipment and treating the machines as experimental aircraft. “A certification regime would stifle commercial operators,” he says.

Operators such as Virgin Galactic, which plans to begin suborbital tourism flights by as early as the end of 2014 from a purpose-built spaceport in New Mexico, are not to be treated as “common carriers”. Rather, passengers will be advised of the hazards of spaceflight and have to waive any rights to sue the operator before flying.

Ultimately, says Nield, the development of high-speed point-to-point travel by suborbital craft depends on allowing operators wide development freedom, as existed in the pioneering days of aviation, rather than restricting them to carefully defined routines and equipment as dictated by modern civil aviation regulations.

UK Space Agency chief David Parker stressed that no decisions have been taken as to whether or not a UK spaceport would enjoy any public subsidy. But in beginning to establish a regulatory programme and identifying eight remote locations with suitable weather and the potential to have a 3,000m (10,000ft)-plus runway (see related story), the UK is making it possible for entrepreneurs to push forward with efforts to provide low-cost access to space from its territory.

The long runway feature assumed to characterise any spaceport underscores the UKSA assumption that commercial space transport operations will be via spaceplanes. Spaceport America, the state of New Mexico-subsidised facility hosting Virgin Galactic, boasts a runway of more than 3,650m.

Virgin Galactic’s operation recalls the X-15 era; a six-passenger rocket-powered spaceplane is lifted by a specially built carrier aircraft to 50,000ft, where it is released to continue its ascent to 100km (62 miles) by its own rocket power to a short suborbital trajectory and a gliding return to the runway.

Significantly, Virgin Galactic is also planning to offer satellite launches. By substituting a booster rocket for the passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo, it believes it could push payloads of up to 250kg (550lb) into low Earth orbit. That “LauncherOne” programme was unveiled by Virgin boss Richard Branson to great fanfare at the 2012 Farnborough air show. Enthusiastic potential customers include Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL). The low-cost and low-mass satellite pioneer is a shining star of the UK space industry and probably the world’s largest satellite manufacturer by volume.

But as a company spokesperson reminded Flight International at this year’s Farnborough, the cost of access to orbit remains a major impediment to growth. Modern electronics mean small satellites can increasingly provide services that previously needed very large platforms, but launch costs of tens of millions of dollars force operators to book multipayload flights. Sharing launch costs makes many missions affordable, but leaves operators at the mercy of the timetable of payload partners.

SSTL’s most recent launch was of its 150kg-class demonstrator, TechDemoSat-1, by Soyuz rocket from Baikonur as one of more than four secondary payloads.

US government control of export of sensitive technologies – the so-called ITAR rules – would be problematic for UK operation of Virgin Galactic craft. But while the UKSA says it is looking at ways to work around the ITAR issue, there may be homegrown options.

Airbus Defence & Space, which conducts much of its research and development and manufacturing in Stevenage in the UK, is developing a runway take-off and landing suborbital spaceplane that would carry both turbofan and rocket engines.

Though it has been running slowly since its start in 2007, the programme has recently been accelerated. A May drop test from 3,000ft off the coast of Singapore of a quarter-scale model with active flight control surfaces will be followed in early 2015 by a 30km drop from a stratospheric balloon, to test supersonic flight.

Programme head Stéphane Latieule says the goal is to develop key technologies for three promising markets – space tourism, scientific exploitation of suborbital microgravity and the launch to low Earth orbit of small satellites via second and/or third-stage rockets released at altitude.

Another UK company, Reaction Engines, hopes to revolutionise access to full orbital flight with a spaceplane based on a radical air-breathing rocket engine it claims will be capable of driving airline-style operations with a runway take-off and landing, reusable and single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane. The company, based near the UK’s space industry cluster in Oxfordshire, won a late 2013 promise of £60 million of UKSA support towards the £350m or so it needs to have a prototype of its SABRE engine in bench testing by 2017 – and ready for flight tests from 2020.