Spaceport Britain: 'No challenge is insurmountable'

Artist's concept of spaceport Image copyright UKSA

It's more than 40 years since Britain abandoned its own launch capability, cancelling the Black Arrow programme just as it successfully lofted the Prospero satellite.

The subsequent withdrawal from the European Ariane programme confirmed Britain's deep aversion to rockets. Until now. The climate is changing. Ministers are putting public funds (albeit a small sum) into an air-breathing rocket-engine technology, and they've declared their desire to see a home spaceport.

The Civil Aviation Authority was tasked with undertaking a review of the possibilities and has delivered an extremely positive verdict - that although there are challenges in launching from the UK, there are no insurmountable obstacles.

Eight coastal aerodromes have been identified that could potentially host a base for spaceplanes, and these will now feature in a consultation process as the government looks to establish the necessary regulatory and licensing arrangements ahead of a 2018 opening.

The emphasis is on the expected emergence of a new breed of low-cost rocket planes that can launch fare-paying passengers to sub-orbital altitudes and also satellites into orbit.

Image copyright XCOR
Image caption The Xcor concept is for a two-seater vehicle

Most of these vehicles are still quite a few years away from ever flying, but ministers believe that if the UK gets its act together now, the nation can catch the first wave when it arrives.

The economic projections are for a market that could be worth billions by the 2030s, and the UK wants a slice of the action. Virgin Galactic is perhaps the spaceplane concept best known to the public, but there are others being developed in the US, such as Xcor with its two-seater Lynx vehicle.

"We expect to start our flight test programme in Q1 of 2015 and be taking people up at the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016," said Xcor president Andrew Nelson.

"We could fly out of Scotland, but we like the look particularly of Newquay. It's excellent that the UK is investigating this because it can only help the market to grow."

Image caption Spaceplane systems may need runway lengths of 3,000m and more

In the UK, potential spaceplanes are further back in the development chain. There is the Ascender concept from Bristol Spaceplanes, and Skylon from Reaction Engines (although this is more likely to fly from an equatorial port).

For any of these vehicles to operate in Britain, special arrangements would have to be put in place, according to the CAA. While technically classified as "aircraft", none could currently meet the requirements that provide the oversight for flight operations in Europe today. Instead, Britain would need to classify spaceplanes as "experimental aircraft".

This would allow us to define a regulatory framework at national level, outside the reach of the EU. We could then draw up rules on aspects such as airworthiness, segregated airspace, crew licensing and even passenger participation. The US, as you might expect, has already thought about these matters, and so there is a model to follow.

Image copyright NASA
Image caption How often does the UK experience conditions suitable for a tourism spaceflight?

"It is important to recognise that we do not consider these systems to be 'common carriers'," explained Dr George Nield from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

"In the US, things have been set up intentionally to recognise that spaceflight is inherently risky, and that all those who fly need to provide their 'informed consent' after a thorough briefing by the operator.

"It needs to be very clear that when you step on to one of these systems, it is not like stepping on to a commercial airliner where you have every expectation of arriving safely at your destination." This will put some limits on liability.

Precisely where the British spaceport would be sited will depend on a number of factors, but the overriding imperative of the licensing authorities will be to find a location that limits danger and inconvenience to the general public. That's why the eight potentials listed this week by the UK Space Agency are all on the coast: the spaceplanes could then operate out over water.

Even so, the environmental impacts will have to be carefully managed, and an opening found in Britain's highly congested airspace (more than two million flights transit UK airspace every year). But as the CAA makes clear in its report - all this is possible.

Some additional notes. The major interest of ministers and the space industry in a UK spaceport is as a facility to enable satellite launches, rather than passenger space tourism. It can be hard sometimes to find a berth for your satellite on a carrier rocket - witness last week's launch of the British-built TechDemoSat and UKube missions on a Russian Soyuz vehicle.

Image copyright SSTL
Image caption UK satellite manufacturers sometimes face delays in finding a rocket ride

Both were delayed while that ride was sorted out. Having greater control over the launch process and schedule would be advantageous to British industry. "But clearly, space tourism is likely to be a route to low-cost access to space," said Dr David Parker, the CEO of the UK Space Agency. "And once you have the infrastructure in place to do that, then you can plan to do the orbital capability that's needed by small satellite operators." Compact vertical rockets are not out of the question in this context, although Scotland is really the only place you could launch them from.

It should also be mentioned that there is some scepticism about the suitability of the UK as a location to launch space tourists.

If you've paid $250,000 for a ticket, you don't want to float to the window and look down on a grey bank of cloud. You want to see snow-topped mountains, the deep-blue ocean, perhaps a sprawling megacity or two, and the outline of countries. How many days a year would Britain's weather behave itself and afford such a view?

And then there's the thorny issue of US export control. The Americans classify space technology as munitions and have some stiff rules that, as presently constituted, would complicate the likes of Virgin Galactic or Xcor from operating in the UK. Can Britain, with its "special relationship" with the US, smooth the path to early operations?

George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic, said his company was concentrating at the moment on getting its US operation into service, but added that he was very impressed with the British attitude.

"The rigour with which the UK government has approached this general issue of commercial spaceflight - both crewed and uncrewed - is very exciting," he told me. "The level of analysis, and cross-agency examination, suggests this is being taken very seriously, and it will happen."

Image copyright Bristol Spaceplanes and Reaction Engines
Image caption Ascender and Skylon are UK concepts being investigated