In October 2015, the first rocket launched from the UK left earth’s atmosphere and entered into space. “What!?” I hear you cry “how on earth did I miss it?”
Above is what a Terrier-Orion rocket launch is like when it’s not a secret military operation!
Well, certainly don’t beat yourself up, everyone missed it, and it’s not due to a space program, but rather the a UK military test with the American military. The Terrier-Orion two-stage rocket was launched from the Hebrides missile range in the Western Isles, and blown to pieces by the USS Ross over the Atlantic.
The Terrier component is the booster, originally from a surface to air US navy missile, and the Orion is a sounding rocket developed at the NASA Goddard Wallops facility. The Orion component on its own would have a ceiling of 85km, but with the Terrier booster the improved Terrier-Orion can reach 200km with a payload of between 90 – 360kg.
Okay, so less exciting to space enthusiasts that this was a military test, however does it set any kind of precedent for the UK? Well yes it is a first, and it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t possible to launch things like that from the UK. However, the difference with the kinds of rockets you and I are interested in, is that we want them to come down too!
There are several Scottish sites in the running to become Spaceport UK, however that facility if it’s built won’t facilitate vertical launch, only horizontal, so it’s banking on the success of people like Virgin Galactic to get their act together, XCor to make great strides, and Skylon to some day be operational from the UK.
Could northern Scotland be the UK’s Cape Canaveral?
Beginning with at least some online presence, the Scottish spaceport website quite rightly calls it ‘Scotland’s Great Opportunity’. That’s a massive understatement potentially, depending on the development of the spaceport, and the potential for commercial users in the UK.
Scotland, again like Wales but even more so one might imagine, has the backing of a devolved government. It just seems way ahead in all honesty…The Scottish sites have a great deal going for them in terms of most of the criteria set out by the UK Space Agency, and again my questions about the suitability turn to more mundane every day commercial considerations such as access. The UK is so incredibly ‘bottom heavy’, with the south of England containing most of the population and wealth. As such, it’s hard for me to imagine that any government would approve potentially the most important economic decision with a bearing on the future which saw the resultant spaceport situated as far away from the south of England as possible. Often decisions (certainly political decisions) have unexpected outcomes that appear to fly in the face of the evidence, simple because political imperatives outweigh evidence, and so don’t expect the front-runner Prestwick site to win, simply because it’s the best location for the given criteria.
To state the massively obvious – what if Scotland becomes independent? Only this week, Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland declared that a 2nd referendum on Scotland’s independence was ‘inevitable’ With rhetoric like that going on, the Scottish sites could be the best by miles, but there would be a public outcry if such an important UK site was to be built at great expense in a location that may soon cease to be in the UK – why not build the UK spaceport in France, it’s closer to the density of population in the UK, and closer to Surrey Satellites, now one of the world leaders in satellites.
Scotland has great reasons to be considered however, and while we’re on the topic of satellites, Clyde Space is also an extremely interesting growing satellite company, said to be expected to turn over in excess of £20 million over the next 3 years – not to be taken lightly! Clyde Space is a pretty exciting company actually, allowing organisations, academic institutions companies (and even individuals) to purchase cubesats (small satellites) for a wide range of applications.
The Prestwick site seems to have it all, owned by the Scottish government (where there is the will to make this happen) not far from Glasgow, a major city, and with better transport links than to most of the other officially shortlisted sites.
Iain Cochrane, Chief Executive of Glasgow Prestwick Airport, said: “Prestwick Airport has been a pioneer of the UK aerospace industry and aviation since its foundation in 1935. I believe Prestwick offers the perfect conditions for space launches and our extensive developed concrete airfield and 3km runway provide the facilities needed for all types of re-usable spacecraft in development.”
So Prestwick is kind of a no-brainer really, the right site, close to the right places but not too close, by the coast…but then again, so is northern France…
We’d like to write about each of the proposed spaceport sites in the UK, and generate some debate about the options, so we’d be glad to hear from people with interests and experiences. In the initial stages of carrying out research into the Llanbedr airport side, sadly for Wales, one of the top ranked Google search listings is this rather angry blog post http://itschaos.co.uk/?page_id=30.
The Llanbedr site could have a lot going for it in terms of geographical location, but someone trying to establish a business there had some pretty damning things to say about the company that owns the Llanbedr airport site. It’s very hard to say what that could mean for a spaceport at this stage. The plan certainly has the backing of the Welsh government, but there’s certainly no slick online presence for this planned site, as there was for the Liverpool proposal we discussed previously.
Someone out there must know more, please feel free to get in touch.
In addition to the Welsh government, QinetiQ seem to be the partners, and the Welsh Economy Minister Edwina Hart has said that “officials would work with Llanbedr Airfield Estates and QinetiQ – who already have a teaming agreement in place – as well as all relevant stakeholders and partners in the private and public sector to take the proposals forward.”
“The Welsh Government is fully committed to helping the UK realise its vision to host Europe’s first Space Port and delighted Llanbedr has been selected as a potential site with the prospective opportunities this could present for Wales.”
Ok, well good luck and let’s see what the coming months bring.