UK to lead commercial space travel

The UK could be a world leader in space technology and commercial suborbital flights in 20 years, according to the British space industry’s secretary-general.

Paul Flanagan of UKspace told The Engineer Online that the UK is already a base for many leading satellite manufacturers, such as EADS Astrium and Surrey Satellites, and it could, one day, be a hub for commercial space travel.

The venture first likely to set up shop in the UK would be Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is currently in talks with Lord Drayson, the science minister, over opening a launching centre for suborbital flights at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

According to Flanagan, the move would require amending the government’s 1986 Outer Space Act: a piece of legislation that makes it difficult to launch a commercial space-flight service in the UK.

‘In 1986, things like space tourism were not on the agenda,’ he said. ‘If that regulatory hurdle can be overcome, another couple thousand jobs in the space industry could come to the UK.’

The desire to amend the 1986 bill is one of several main issues on the agenda of the government- and industry-led Space Innovation and Growth Team, which is due to report to Drayson in January on ways to promote growth of the space industry in the UK.

Flanagan said that the high-technology and high-value jobs created through the space industry could be key to the UK’s economic recovery.

‘The global space market is growing faster than any other sector in the economy globally,’ he added. ‘In the UK, space companies have had a growth factor of just short of 10 per cent a year, which is really quite dramatic.’

Terry Coxall, programme director of the Space Innovation Growth Team, said that the industry has the potential to grow even more with the increased usage of satellite communications.

He added that his team envisions satellites facilitating broadband internet access to people living in remote parts of the world. Other future possibilities, said Coxall, could include car navigation systems that could tell drivers not only where they are going but what the weather is like up ahead.

All of this, he added, will require more satellites and better ways to interrogate information from them. The hope of his team is that all of the required technology will be developed and commercialised in the UK.

According to Coxall, the recommendations from the Space Innovation Growth Team could also help promote commercial space travel in the UK. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, is a steering board member of the team.

‘Virgin Galactic is one of the future opportunities,’ he said. ‘We cannot say today that they are definitely going to take off in a big way, but we should be supporting them in as many different ways as possible to enable them to grow.’

Coxall added that it is ‘probable’ that the Space Innovation Growth Team will put suggestions for amendments to the 1986 Outer Space Act in its list of recommendations to Lord Drayson.

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, talks to Siobhan Wagner about plans to launch commercial space operations in the UK.

What changes need to be made to the 1986 Outer Space Act to allow commercial space flights in the UK?

The 1986 act wasn’t really written with the idea of the possibility of space flight within the UK or indeed the UK being used as a venue for satellite launching.

In the US, they now have a regulatory structure to regulate commercial human and payload space flights.

In 2004, the US government passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act, which gives America a regulatory structure to regulate commercial human and payload space flights.

The 2004 act gives us very good clarity on insurance, who the regulatory authority is, and I’ve been talking with the BNSC [British National Space Centre] about this. The BNSC is now looking very closely at it and we’re trying to understand what would need to be done in the UK if we want to operate our system here.

How will commercial space flights benefit the UK’s space industry and stimulate the development of space technology?

It’s a very simple answer if you’re a small company such as Surrey Satellites. We are going to be able to launch 200kg satellites at a much lower cost than has ever been done before. If you’re a manufacturer in the UK and you can also offer polar orbit launch without having to go to Kazakhstan or elsewhere, then you can do it at low cost. It will be a big stimulus to our satellite industry in this country.

The UK is in such a big position in worldwide space science through our university system. It would be useful for that as well.

Why do you believe RAF Lossiemouth would be an ideal place to launch Virgin Galactic flights?

It’s an example of a possible location. It has a very long runway, it points towards the sea and it has a closed airspace over the Moray Firth, where we can do a launch from.

The north of Scotland is a very good location to launch low-earth-orbit satellites into polar orbit but because all current space launch systems in the past have been based on ground rocketry they haven’t really envisioned payloads such as ours with a very large carrier vehicle launching the space ship at 50,000ft [15,240m].

What will passengers aboard the Virgin Galactic experience during their suborbital flight?

If you’re going up as a space tourist, as opposed to a space scientist, you will get three or four different experiences. One is the enormous G forces on the way up, which is quite thrilling. You go 3,000mph [4,830kph] in the climb. Once you get into space, you become weightless and you get the chance to float around in the cabin. You get the chance to see the curvature of the Earth, the blue planet below you, the thin atmosphere. You get a view of about 1,500 miles [2,400km], so you’d see most of the UK if you were above the north tip of Scotland.

If you were in New Mexico, you’d see down to the Gulf of Mexico and across to California. Our home base is going to be in New Mexico, a place called Spaceport America, which is under construction now.

What arguments can you make for opening up space travel to commercial, privately run businesses?

It will get cheaper. We need to get to space more than we ever needed to in the past. We have the technologies there to be able to do an awful lot of things in space very cost effectively, such as operate server farms, solar power stations and more of our communications. The technology to be able to do a lot more industrial work in space is there.

The issue is the cost of getting the stuff up there. That’s where the commercial sector will change the way space operates. Space launch at the moment is based on very old technology. Ground-based rockets built in traditional style – the design of which hasn’t really changed – is clearly an issue. With the new materials technologies available in the aerospace industry, there are much better ways to do it.

You have, in the past, discussed the possibility of using Virgin Galactic suborbital flights as a means of travelling around the world.

That’s an eventual possibility. We believe moving to that stage will require new engine technology of the type being developed by people such as Reaction Engines, i.e. an engine that can breathe air and be a non-air breathing engine: a hybrid between a jet and a rocket motor.

What would be the benefits of travelling around the world in a suborbital flight?

It would lower the carbon footprint considerably and you’d go a lot faster. You could go from London to Sydney in two and a half to three hours or London to Los Angeles in two hours.