Friday, 19 September 2014
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Spaceport support?

This week’s announcement of eight shortlisted sites for a potential UK spaceport caused much excitement. And it’s easy to see why.

The image of Britain as a hub for reusable spaceplanes embarking on science, travel and tourism missions is certainly an exciting one from an economic, scientific and plain patriotic point of view.

But there was also some confusion over whether it was actually feasible to launch vehicles into space from the UK. And while the government was enthusiastically championing the idea, the companies actually developing spaceplanes didn’t appear to show the same level of support. So is a UK spaceport likely or even possible?

Most current space launches tend to be from sites much closer to the equator than the UK, and the latitude of a launch site has a significant effect on the amount of fuel needed to reach certain orbits. The closer you are to the equator, the faster the Earth beneath you is spinning. This means you get a bigger boost from the planet’s revolution so you need less fuel to reach the required speed when you take off.

Does a UK space port actually make sense?

Does a UK space port actually make sense?

On top of that, it’s easier to reach orbits that are inclined at a low angle to the equator from lower latitude sites. Most communications satellites, for example, operate in a geostationary orbit directly above the equator.   But, as the angle of orbit increases and moves closer to being perpendicular with the equator, it becomes easier to launch from a higher latitude. Such polar or near-polar orbits are often used for earth observation satellites.  

Plus, a launch into this kind of orbit doesn’t actually benefit from the increased speed gained from being near the equator, according to Dr MacDonald of the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory at Strathclyde University. ‘In fact, the orbit would be retrograde, that is it would be going against the direction of the Earth’s rotation,’ he said. ‘So you are actually looking to ‘scrub-off’ the extra speed you get due to the rotation of the Earth when you launch from the equator.’

There’s also a different story for space tourism. Unless visiting some kind of space hotel in orbit or on the Moon, most commercial space flights are likely to be sub-orbital, flying up out of the atmosphere but returning to the ground before completing a full revolution.  ‘These are only parabolic arcs so they don’t get anywhere near orbit and the location doesn’t really matter – beyond of course what the tourist gets to see out of the window,’ said MacDonald.  

Is it a good idea?

So a British spaceport could easily offer a launch site for sub-orbital space tourism flights or polar-orbiting satellites. But how suitable would the UK be in other terms? For one thing, it’s already an aviation hub. Not only do we have the world’s second largest aerospace industry and a major satellite manufacturer (Airbus Defence & Space), but in Heathrow we also possess Europe’s busiest airport and the fifth busiest in the world.

Although a spaceport would be located far away on the coast – most likely in Scotland, looking at the shortlist – it would be easy to offer connecting flights.   And for better or worse, Britain – or rather London – has become a global centre for the world’s wealthy elite, who would likely make up the bulk of space tourism customers, at least at first.

But do the companies planning to operate spaceplanes actually want to use the UK?

This week’s government report produced by the Civil Aviation Authority said ‘it was clear that there is a genuine appetite to begin spaceplane operations in the UK’ and ‘spaceplane operators have expressed a strong interest in launching from the UK by 2018 or earlier’. However, publicly most of these firms haven’t made such unambiguous statements citing the UK as a preferred destination for a spaceport.

While it’s nice to think that Britain’s transatlantic links through the existing aerospace industry and our shared language and history make the UK an obvious place for the big US firms to come, we probably shouldn’t be so sure. Virgin Galactic has built its primary spaceport in New Mexico and although the firm’s founder is British-born Richard Branson, he reportedly wants the secondary operation in Abu Dhabi, which owns almost a third of the organisation. Other executives have remained non-committal about a UK Virgin base, although the CEO, George Whitesides told the BBC he was impressed with the British government’s attitude.

The other big firm, XCOR, has been more positive about the idea of a UK spaceport, with president Andrew Nelson telling the Guardian: ‘I understand the desire to have a Scotland site, but we also like Newquay.’ But these kind of somewhat vague statements still don’t set out an argument for why the UK would be more attractive than other destinations.  

UK support

There are, of course, several UK ventures hoping to launch into the spaceplane market. But while the prominent Reaction Engines has received UK government funding, its feasibility studies – notably with the European Space Agency – have focused on launches from the current satellite port in French Guiana.

Indeed, you could image the politics involved in persuading ESA to move its launch site from a French base to a British one, especially when the UK has for decades refused to take part manned missions (or a similar conversation with Airbus, which is also developing a spaceplane). We asked Reaction Engines to clarify their position but hadn’t received a response by the time this article was published.

Another British firm hoping to enter the market, Bristol Spaceplanes, is more publicly committed to the UK as a launch site. Managing director David Ashford told The Engineer he definitely wanted to fly from the UK and it was as good as anywhere to do so. But, he added: ‘I’m not bothered about a spaceport. From the national business point of view it’s much more important to take the lead in building the spaceplanes we’re going to fly with… All we need is a medium-length runway and reasonably uncluttered airspace.’

Of course, some of the companies may be far more enthusiastic about the UK than they can publicly say because they’re hedging their bets and are engaged in commercial negotiations with the government. But it still seems odd that there’s been such little vocal support from industry for the idea of a UK spaceport if there really is as much appetite as the government claims.

Ashford’s point also raises a final interesting question about whether we should be pursuing this kind of venture. Prof Richard Brown, director of Strathclyde’s Centre for Future Air-Space Transportation Technology, puts it this way: ‘Kennedy directed the USA to turn its attention to the moon “not because it would be easy, but because it would be hard,” fully realising the technological and commercial leadership that would accrue from the endeavour. We build runways, golf courses and fancy hotels in the name of space activity, and I strongly fear that this is rather because it is just too easy to do so.’

Having said that, a spaceport may help put a budding UK industry on the map: how many people currently know we even have a space sector? Even if a British launch site is more of a showpiece, sometimes prestige can take you to the Moon and back.


Readers' comments (10)

  • This is just a gross waste of money and resources which will not benefit the general travelling public.

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  • Britain does not have the CASH to go and run a Spaceport program!
    Why are we wasting CASH on this idea?
    We have lost manufacturing and are service based economy so why in hell would we want to build a Spaceport?
    As a EUROPEAN VENTURE, it might be possible but cannot go it alone.

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  • Britannia ruled the waves for a good long while, why not rule space? I think you will find out that equatorial speed would be advantage, so why not build the spaceport in Scotland, but only as the hub to the actual spaceport that is a floating island in the Atlantic (Sargasso Sea perhaps), as the winds there are mostly calm. Then at least while not precisely on the equator, it's near enough to matter. Or cruise the "island" all the way to the equator, depending on conditions.

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  • A spaceport which isn't too far away from the UK space industry will help it to test and develop its products even if most revenue flights happen closer to the equator.

    Imagine rejecting the exploration of the Earth because you can't be bothered to build a port? Hopefully we have a little vision.

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  • The idea of a challenge is good, as the article says. BUT this challenge should, of course, include the cost. (It should be manufacturing that leads, rather than being part of an existing service industry)
    The USA is considering various launcher technologies as well as vehicles...
    Of course innovative solutions, being cheaper, would be good - but of course with an element of risk.
    In the begining was risk and then came the research and there was innovation. And it was good. (to paraphrase)

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  • Maybe it would be a good idea to expand LHR by doubling the length of the present runways, using them in split 2*3km mode for normal operation but exceptionally enable spaceplanes to take off using the whole length. There are many more space customers around London than Lossiemouth or Newquay, not to mention the proximity of science companies. Or Stansted which already has a very long runway. We are of course talking about SSTO.

    That will be when someone decides to do something and stop kicking this important issue into the long grass. I'm not holding my breath and fully expect the European spaceport to be somewhere near Frankfurt...

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  • The main thing I see here is that in the future every main country will have a 'spaceport' mainly to travel to places like Australia in a sub orbital hypersonic craft that can do the trip in a few hours instead of a day or more! Major trips into space & beyond will be from the few main existing rocket bases like Cape Canaveral or in French Guiana.

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  • This was a very poor overview of what constraints there are over space launch sites.

    A tourist hop-up-and-down site can be built in most places (assuming there are no nearby inhabitants). But we have no figures on the demand as yet.

    Equatorial orbits are always big business, and the UK can't do those. Polar orbits are useful for spy satellites, but those tend to be launched by the host nation, for obvious reasons.

    More importantly, you want a thousand miles or so of clear water down-range of the launch site for safety reasons. That really limits Scotland to the north coast, and very limited angles of inclination.

    Now add the fact that you want good road-rail links and good reliable weather, and you can see that the Scottish Space-Port is a propaganda pipe-dream.

    I thought this was an engineering magazine?

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  • If it could be done, it would help boost the aviation sector, maybe even make Barnes Wallace's sub orbital project / dream finally come true.

    As to the cash element, it might actually generate some decent income, from businesses opening near it in order to test the products they want to build, I don't imagine that building space planes is a low technology / low cost activity.

    If it's to be a UK Govt funded project, is Scotland really the right choice, at least until after the devolution vote has been cast and we know what shape the country is going be in future?

    If Scotland is not a future option the British Govt, the poster above does rather make it sound like it's a total pipe dream

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  • Diego Garcia BIOT. Ideal orbital geometry from there, clear range in every direction, and BTW it's British.

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