BRIEFING: Sovereign launch capability in the UK space sector

The UK is seeking to develop its own space launch capability. Progress continues apace at a number of sites, but policy clarity will be needed to achieve its potential.

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UK space sector rocket launch through cloud, mitigating political risk.
The UK is seeking to develop its sovereign launch capacity, but political risks remain.

The Government has stated its ambition to grow the UK share of the global space economy from 5.1% in 2017 to 10% by 2030. Achieving this target will require an expansion of the domestic UK space-industrial base with the help of both public and private capital, directed by clear strategy from Government on exactly what kind of space power it wants to be. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) remains a minor player compared to giants like NASA, but the British space sector has a number of strong competitive advantages which mean that it is well-placed to gain a seat at the top table of space nations.

One of the UK’s strengths stems from its location, which is well-suited to launching certain payloads into space. For example, the UK’s northern latitude means that it can launch satellites into very useful polar and sun-synchronous orbits, where the satellite always passes over a given point on the Earth’s surface at the same local mean solar time. This is essential for optical imaging satellites because the surface lighting will be nearly always the same. The proximity of the Atlantic also provides safety benefits in allowing launches to take place over the ocean and away from populated areas.

In 2018, the Space Growth Partnership, a coalition of industry, academia and government with the goal of representing the UK space sector, published a strategy outlining a vision for the growth of the UK space industry over the next decade. The “Prosperity from Space” strategy set out four priorities for the sector, including low-cost access to space. In many ways, low-cost access to space is a multiplier for the industry. The ability to deliver safe, reliable and efficient transfers of payloads into orbit will open doors to increased opportunities across the industry, from small satellites to data management to in-space robotics. Both upstream and downstream parts of the sector will benefit from readily available launch facilities.

Developing low-cost access to space from the UK is not only economically beneficial, but also of considerable strategic importance. Space nations are racing to develop their sovereign space capabilities in order to guarantee their future competitiveness, domestic resilience and military power. Successful spaceports in the UK will position the space sector well to realise its 2030 ambitions.

Current spaceport plans in the UK

There are multiple spaceport proposals currently being developed around the UK, at varying stages of the process. The Government has invested £40 million to grow the UK’s spaceflight capabilities and is funding a number of industry-led projects through Launch UK, the Space Agency’s commercial spaceflight programme, most notably spaceports in Scotland and Cornwall. Other proposed spaceports are also pressing for similar Government support as they advance their plans.

In terms of vertical launch, the UK’s two leading sites are both situated in Scotland. The Sutherland Space Hub on the northern coast of Scotland secured planning permission for its spaceport in August of last year. It is hoping to launch the new Prime rockets developed by the start-up Orbex, which will carry payloads of up to 180kg when fully operational. Launches are expected by the end of 2022.

The Shetland Space Centre, located on the UK’s northernmost island, Unst, is the other promising candidate for a vertical launch from the UK in the near future. The site received a boost in October 2020 when the Government approved plans for Lockheed Martin to transfer its satellite launch operations from Sutherland to Unst.

Plans are also well underway to create a spaceport in Cornwall, close to the existing airport at Newquay. The airport has been working closely with Virgin Orbit, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, to develop horizontal launch capacity, where modified aeroplanes are used to launch small rocket-carrying satellites into orbit. Virgin Orbit demonstrated proof of concept with a successful launch from Mojave, California on 17th January 2021. The pandemic has delayed schedules, but Virgin Orbit is now set to start operations from Cornwall in spring 2022, with the first mission rumoured to be a Ministry of Defence launch. RAF Flight Lieutenant Matthew Stannard is currently on secondment with Virgin Orbit and is expected to become the first UK military pilot to earn his “space wings”.

Scotland also has a number of other spaceport proposals at different stages of development. The Western Isles Spaceport, which is backed by QinetiQ, has a site earmarked on the northwest coast of the island of North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, close to a Ministry of Defence missile testing range. They hope to develop a sub-orbital launch facility in 2021.

Glasgow Prestwick Airport is well-suited to horizontal launch and is planning to apply for a launch licence as soon as the necessary regulation is finalised. The airport recently secured an £80m investment as part of the Ayrshire Growth Deal and aims to be the largest commercial spaceport in Europe, providing services including micro gravity flights, air launch of satellites, human space flight and hypersonic flight services.

Other potential sites for UK spaceports include Llanbedr Airfield in Snowdonia, Wales, and Machrihanish air base near Campbeltown, Scotland, with early-stage funding being provided by Government to carry out feasibility studies.

Political risk and opportunity for UK space launch

Progress is being made across these sites, spurred on by the Government’s ambition to develop the first commercial spaceport in Europe. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is very keen to have a UK satellite launched on a UK rocket from a UK spaceport in 2022, and this is the top priority for the UK National Space Council.

Despite Government enthusiasm, the development of launch capability in the UK still faces some questions. One of the most pressing concerns is the state of regulation, with the Conservative MP Mark Garnier recently criticising the “incredibly untidy, confusing regulatory landscape” facing international companies looking to locate themselves in the UK.

The Space Industry Act 2018 created a licensing framework for spaceflight activities conducted in the UK and set conditions that the regulator must consider, but that framework has still not been fully put into place. The 2018 Act set the Secretary of State for Transport as the regulator for UK spaceports, with regulatory functions now being delegated from the UKSA to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This transfer of regulatory powers has raised eyebrows within the industry, with concerns over both the initial lack of consultation about the move, and that the new post-Brexit responsibilities and workload of the CAA will delay the licencing process for spaceflight. However, the transfer effectively moves spaceflight from the business department and into the transport department (DfT), implying a better integration of the sector with relevant others, such as aviation. It may also be worth noting that the current Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, is enthusiastic about this policy area.

An important step towards a full licensing framework was taken last week (5th March 2021) with the publication of the Government’s response to a DfT consultation on spaceflight regulation. The Government has set out what it describes as an “inherently flexible” set of regulations, but not everything has been settled, most notably questions regarding liabilities and insurance. Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, has previously announced a space insurance policy operated by 18 insurance syndicates, but despite the commercial availability of insurance, legislative details still remain to be worked out. The Government committed in its consultation response to carry out a wider review of insurance and liabilities requirements in 2021, and affirmed that it was on track to legislate for UK spaceflight by the end of this year.

The other notable political risk for companies with plans in the UK space sector is the nature of the relationship with the USA. In June 2020, the two countries signed the ‘US-UK Technology Safeguards Agreement’, designed to enable US companies to participate in space launches from the UK, and, equally, to protect US launch technology deployed on British soil. There is a concern within the industry that the nature of this agreement might exclude other foreign companies from UK spaceports, or potentially advantage the US industry titans at the expense of UK start-ups. There is a lack of detail on how the agreement will function in practice and its impact on the sector.

The future of UK launch

There are plenty of developments on the horizon for the UK space sector and enabling sovereign launch capability will remain a key item on the agenda. UKSpace, the trade body for the UK space industry, recently set out its advice as the Government looks to advance its vision for the sector. It made three main policy recommendations designed to boost the industry and unlock further private investment in the UK space sector. These recommendations were to:

  • Set the Space Innovation Fund at £150m a year for 10 years;

  • Create a National Procurement Fund of £250m a year, sustained over 10 years;

  • Establish a Space Delivery Agency for complex hi-tech initiatives, leaving UKSA to concentrate on policy, international relations and regulatory issues.

The Government’s National Space Strategy, promised in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, is due to be published in H1 2021. It remains to be seen whether any of these recommendations will be followed, but industry will be hoping that the Strategy points a clear regulatory and policy path forward for UK space launch, providing certainty to the sector and encouraging foreign investment.

To discuss your organisation's political risk in the UK, contact Helmsley Partners.

To discuss your organisation's political risk and strategy, please contact Helmsley Partners.