Britain is to build a commercial spaceport that will be used to launch manned missions and commercial satellites. A list of eight locations for the spaceport – which could be used by Virgin Galactic and the US company XCOR to launch space tourism flights – has been drawn up by the government and will be announced on Tuesday at the Farnborough air show.
It is planned to have Britain’s spaceport in operation by 2018 even though a decision has yet to be made on its location. Several sites around the country have been linked to spaceport plans and are now being studied by officials.
“We have worked out the regulatory regime we need to launch spaceships in Britain and assessed what kind of aviation checks will have to be imposed when we put craft into space,” said the science minister, David Willetts. “In the wake of that work we have now created a shortlist of locations for the first British spaceport.”
Details of the list are being kept secret until Tuesday but experts believe locations could include the north of Scotland, Bristol, Norfolk and the Outer Hebrides. The first of these possible sites – Lossiemouth on the Moray coast of Scotland – is already home to a major helicopter rescue centre and has been pinpointed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic as a desirable site for launching its spaceplanes, a proposal that has been backed enthusiastically by the Scottish National party.
Virgin Galactic’s first flights are set to take off from a purpose-built spaceport in New Mexico at the end of the year. Passengers will pay around £120,000 for a 150-minute flight in a tiny spaceplane that will take them to a height of around 100km (62 miles) and will allow them to experience about six minutes of zero-gravity. Once flights start taking off from New Mexico, Virgin says it wants to open spaceports in other countries and it has already had talks with Scottish ministers about locating a site at Lossiemouth.
“There are several other sites that have already been considered as potential spaceports in the UK and will have been looked at by space officials,” added Nick Spall, of the British Interplanetary Society. “There is a rocket range at Benbecula and it has also been linked to spaceport plans in the past. However, the site – in the Outer Hebrides – is remote, and it is not clear that Richard Branson would want a location so far from the mainland to be used to launch his spaceplanes.”
Another prospect is Filton airfield, near Bristol. All British-built Concordes flew out of Filton, and the base was also used to station Britain’s fleet of Vulcan bombers during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. “Both Virgin Galactic and the California company XCOR are building spaceplanes that will take off like planes, which could make airfields like Filton very attractive to them,” said Spall.
In the 1960s Britain considered building a launch pad for space rockets in Norfolk but abandoned the idea when engineers warned that jettisoned first stages could strike oil rigs as rockets flew out over the North Sea. Instead it was decided that Britain would launch its rockets in Australia until the Tory government decided in 1972 to cancel Britain’s entire space launcher programme. The decision to build a UK spaceport now raises the prospect that a launch pad could be built in Norfolk half a century after the first plan was put forward.
Another consideration that will affect spaceport plans is the involvement of inventor Alan Bond, whose company Reaction Engines is developing a reusable spaceplane called Skylon which, it is hoped, will be able to take off and land like a plane. The government has already invested £60m in Bond’s project. The first flights of Skylon are scheduled to take place before the end of the decade, and the spaceplane could use Britain’s new spaceport as its base.
The decision to build a UK launch site represents a major change in attitude to the space industry by the government. Until recently, ministers have turned their backs on building rockets but the recent spectacular growth of British space companies, such as Surrey Satellites Technology, whose TechDemoSat-1 was launched into Earth orbit on board a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last week, have forced ministers to change their minds.
On Tuesday, the Business, Innovations and Skills Department will reveal that Britain’s space industry sector has grown by 7.2% over the past two years and is now worth more than £11bn billion while employing around 34,000 staff. The long-term aim is to raise this figure to around £40bn in 2030, when it is hoped the UK space industry will employ more than 100,000 people. “With a spaceport, we will add significantly to our ability to create a very strong UK space industry,” said Willetts.
Raw Story is a progressive news site that focuses on stories often ignored in the mainstream media. While giving coverage to the big stories of the day, we also bring our readers' attention to policy, politics, legal and human rights stories that get ignored in an infotainment culture driven solely by pageviews.
Founded in 2004, Raw Story reaches 9 million unique readers per month and serves more than 30 million pageviews.