The lure of commercial riches in space is spurring a variety of plans to help launch all the components necessary for a fully functioning orbital economy.
The latest to enter this private-sector race is the UK, which on Monday will announce that it plans to construct the nation’s first commercial vertical launch spaceport in northern Scotland.
The UK is a “geographically strategic location for launch” with its northern latitudes, and well-placed to reach polar and near-polar orbits, the UK Space Agency said. Most commercial launches today are from Florida and French Guiana, where Nasa and the European Space Agency operate, respectively, due to their proximity to the equator. These offer easier access for satellites bound for geostationary orbit.
Parliament passed the Space Industry Act earlier this year, aiming to help the nation capitalise on the burgeoning commercial interest in space. Supporters say the effort will bring new jobs and billions of pounds to the UK economy. The government has also allocated a £50 million (US$66.2 million) fund to help further the industry.
“We are committed to supporting a commercial market for access to space in the UK, and we will continue to engage with any company who seeks to operate here,” Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said in a statement.
On the other side of the Atlantic, this modern pursuit of space riches has spurred new spaceport plans across America, from Georgia to Colorado, Alaska to Guam. In Canada, a firm called Maritime Launch Services Ltd is planning the country’s first commercial spaceport in eastern Nova Scotia, with an initial launch planned in 2021.
The launch infrastructure boom raises questions about the speed and scope of commercial activities in space. The world is likely to see thousands of new commercial satellites of all varieties in future decades, given steep declines for both launch and satellite costs. Yet it remains unclear how most satellite operators will get to space, or from where, not to mention the size of the market and how many commercial spaceports may be required.
To date, US regulators have licensed 10 commercial spaceports, including Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic plans to launch its customers – horizontally, from an aircraft – for pleasure rides into space. Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are also planning launch facilities in Texas for their growing space businesses.
As part of the UK announcement at the Farnborough Air Show, Lockheed Martin Corp. was awarded US$31 million for two UK projects: establishing vertical launch operations in Sutherland and a development programme slated for Reading to build a new upper stage for a Lockheed rocket to deploy as many as six small satellites.
Orbex Ltd, a London-based firm that develops launch vehicles for small satellites, was awarded US$7 million to devise a new rocket to use at the Sutherland site.
US and British officials will soon begin formal talks on a deal to establish “legal and technical safeguards for sensitive US space technologies to be used in the UK,” the UK Space Agency said. Such an agreement would make it easier for US companies to launch from a British spaceport.
The UK produces almost half of the small satellites and about a quarter of the world’s telecommunications satellites, according to the space agency. With the new spaceport, “the UK will become Europe’s first one-stop-shop for building, launching and operating satellites,” the agency said.