The UK Is Rejoining the Space Race
Virgin Orbit’s flight is expected to be just the start of the country’s launch prowess. Two more spaceports are currently under development, one at the northernmost tip of mainland UK in Sutherland, Scotland, and another in the Shetland Islands, even further north, off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more classic vertical rocket launches as soon as next year. Sutherland is set to be the home of Orbex, a UK launch company based out of Forres near the Scottish city of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights from the US firm ABL Space Systems.
Another UK launch company, Edinburgh-based Skyrora, also hopes to reach orbit next year using a mobile launch platform that can be packed into a shipping container and which, it says, could be used from a number of locations. In the coming weeks, the company is expected to conduct a test “hop” into space with a small rocket, which will briefly reach a cosmic altitude of 102 kilometers, via a launch from Iceland.
If these companies are successful, there are riches to be had. With no operational launch site in Europe (sites are being considered in Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere), European space companies, rather than shipping their satellites to the US or other locations, could take a relatively shorter jaunt to the UK. “We’re looking at a fantastic opportunity to be one of the only launching states which can service the European market,” says Shaw. “If we get there first, a lot of the European business will come to us for small satellite launches.”
That not only makes for simpler logistics, but also means satellite operators can book rides on smaller rockets at shorter notice rather than have to wait to hitch a ride on larger rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the US. “You could be waiting up to two or three years before your launch,” says Shaw. Smaller rockets could instead mean launch opportunities are available in days or weeks. Each UK company will be hoping they can tap into this market. “There’s a real healthy competition,” says Shaw.
Cape Canaveral this will not be—at most there might be a few launches a month from all the UK’s spaceports combined. Yet it is a fascinating time, beginning with Virgin Orbit’s effort this autumn. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off Russian launch capabilities from the West, there is even more of a demand for launch capability in the western hemisphere,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of the space consulting firm Astralytical. “A launch facility in the UK could help alleviate the bottleneck of launches. There is a backlog of demand.”
It is an uncertain period in the UK, with a new government followed almost immediately by the end of the Elizabethan era. Now under the reign of King Charles III, a new age is beginning—one not tied to the confines of Earth. Long in the making, the UK is about to, once again, become a spacefaring nation. “It’s going to be absolutely fantastic,” says Shaw.