The UK makes a nifty location from which to launch. Being an island at a reasonably high latitude means that rockets can launch north over uninhabited seas, entering a pole-to-pole orbit around our planet. Such orbits are particularly useful for Earth observation satellites, which enable them to take images of the planet while orbiting beneath it, which can be used for “agricultural development or marine security” among many other applications, says Peter Shaw. Lecturer in Astronomy from Kingston University, UK.
Virgin’s flight to orbit is expected to be just the beginning of the country’s launch prowess. Two more spaceports are currently under development, one in Sutherland, Scotland at the northernmost tip of mainland UK, and another in the Shetland Islands, further north off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more classic vertical rocket launches next year. Sutherland is to be home to UK launch company Orbex, based in Forres near the Scottish city of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights from US firm ABL Space Systems.
Another UK launch company, Edinburgh-based SkyRora, also hopes to reach orbit next year using a mobile launch platform that can be packed into a shipping container and, it says, used from a number of locations. In the coming weeks, the company is expected to conduct a “hop” test in space with the small rocket, which will soon reach a cosmic altitude of 102 kilometers by launching from Iceland.
If these companies succeed, there is wealth. As there are no operational launch sites in Europe (sites in Germany, Portugal and elsewhere are being considered), European space companies, rather than sending their satellites to the US or elsewhere, can make the relatively short journey to the UK. “We see an incredible opportunity to be one of the only launching states that can serve the European market,” says Shaw. “If we get there first, many European businesses will come to us for small satellite launches.”
Not only does that make for easier logistics, but it also means that satellite operators can book a ride on a smaller rocket at short notice rather than having to wait for a ride on a larger rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the US. “You can wait two or three years before your launch,” says Shaw. Rather small rockets may mean that launch opportunities are available in days or weeks. Every UK company will be hoping they can tap into this market. “There’s a real healthy competition,” Shaw says.
Cape Canaveral won’t be—all the UK’s spaceports combined could have a few launches a month. Still, it’s an interesting time starting with the Virgin Orbit effort this fall. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shut down Russian launch capabilities from the West, the demand for launch capability in the Western Hemisphere is high,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of space consulting firm Astralitical. “A launch facility in the UK could help clear the launch bottleneck. There is a backlog of demand.”
It is an uncertain period in the UK, with a new government almost immediately following the end of the Elizabethan era. Now under the reign of King Charles III, a new age is dawning – one not bound by earthly limits. Long in the making, the UK is to become, once again, a spacefaring nation. “That would be absolutely amazing,” Shaw says.