The UK is back in the space race

Virgin Orbit’s flight is expected to be just the beginning of the country’s launch power. Two more spaceports are currently under development, one on the northernmost tip of the UK mainland in Sutherland, Scotland, and another in the Shetland Islands, even further north, off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more classic vertical rocket launches next year. Sutherland is will be home to Orbexa British launch company based in Forres near the Scottish city of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights of the American company ABL Space Systems.

Another British launch company, Edinburgh-based Skyrora, also hopes to enter orbit next year using a mobile launch pad that can be packed into a sea container and said it can be used from a number of locations. In the coming weeks, the company is expected to “hope” a test into space with a small rocket, which will briefly reach a cosmic height of 102 kilometers via a launch from Iceland.

If these companies are successful, there is a lot to earn. Without operational launch site in Europe (sites are being considered in Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere), instead of shipping their satellites to the US or other locations, European space companies could make a relatively shorter trip to the UK. “We are looking at a fantastic opportunity to be one of the few launching states that can serve the European market,” said Shaw. “If we get there first, many European companies will come to us for small satellite launches.”

Not only does that make for easier logistics, but it also means satellite operators can book rides on smaller rockets at shorter notice instead of having to wait to get a ride on larger rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the US. “You could wait up to two or three years for your launch,” Shaw says. Smaller rockets may instead mean launch capabilities available within days or weeks. Every UK company hopes they can tap into this market. “There’s some really healthy competition,” Shaw says.

Cape Canaveral won’t be – there could be at most a few launches a month from all of the UK’s spaceports combined. Still, it’s a fascinating time, starting with Virgin Orbit’s efforts this fall. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off Russian launch capabilities from the West, there has been an even greater demand for launch capabilities in the Western Hemisphere,” said Laura Forczyk, founder of space consultancy Astralytical. “A launch facility in the UK could help alleviate the bottleneck of launches. There is a backlog in demand.”

It is an uncertain period in the UK, with a new government almost immediately following the end of the Elizabethan era. Under the reign of King Charles III, a new era begins – an era that is not bound by the limits of the earth. The UK has been long in the making and is on the cusp of once again becoming a space-faring nation. “It’s going to be absolutely fantastic,” Shaw says.


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