Spaceport support?

Senior reporter

The prospect of a UK spaceport being built has generated plenty of public excitement but does it actually make sense for the aerospace industry?

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.