The Virgin Orbit flight is set to be just the start of the country’s launch prowess. Two more spaceports are currently under development, one at the northern end of the UK mainland in Sutherland, Scotland, and the other in the Shetland Islands even further north off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more conventional vertical rocket launches as early as next year. Sutherland is ready to be Orbex homea British launch company based in Forres near the Scottish town of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights from the American 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 multiple locations. In the coming weeks, the company is expected to perform a test “jump” into space with a small rocket, which will briefly reach a cosmic altitude of 102 kilometers, via launch from Iceland.
If these companies succeed, there are riches to be had. Without an operational launch site in Europe (sites are under study in Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere), European space companies, rather than shipping their satellites to the US or elsewhere, could make a relatively shorter jaunt to the UK. “We are looking for a fantastic opportunity to be one of the only launch states that can serve the European market,” says Shaw. “If we get there first, a lot of European companies will come to us for launches of small satellites.”
This not only simplifies logistics, but also means that satellite operators can book rides on smaller rockets in shorter timeframes rather than having to wait to hitchhike on larger rockets such as the Falcon 9. of SpaceX in the United States. “You could wait up to two or three years before you launch,” says Shaw. Smaller rockets could instead mean that launch opportunities are available within days or weeks. Every British company hopes to tap into this market. “There’s real healthy competition out there,” says Shaw.
Cape Canaveral it won’t – at most there could be a few launches per month from all UK spaceports combined. Still, it’s a fascinating time, starting with the Virgin Orbit effort this fall. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off Russian launch capabilities from the West, there is even more demand for launch capability in the Western Hemisphere,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of the company. Astralytical space consultancy. “A UK launch facility could help reduce the launch bottleneck. There is a backlog of applications.
It is an uncertain time 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 era begins, an era that is not bound to the ends of the Earth. Long in the making, the UK is on the verge of becoming a space nation again. “It’s going to be absolutely fantastic,” says Shaw.