MANCHESTER, England — The national British debate over whether to develop a domestic space-launch service hinges on the unproved hypothesis that it’s possible to make a decent return on the investment.
The new government to follow the June 8 election is unlikely to take a radically different view of the subject than its predecessor, which promoted the idea of spaceports for vertical and horizontal-launch systems but stopped short of labeling the effort a strategic priority for government spending.
The government also set the goal of having a service in operation in 2020. Industry officials attending the UK Space Conference here May 30-June 1 were unanimous in saying this schedule is impossible to meet unless Britain opts to import an existing launch system and operate it from UK territory.
Any imported service will need to negotiate multiple regulatory issues arising from the UK government and from the government that controls export of the relevant technology.
“It’s going to require an innovative approach to the regulatory issues, including licensing and insurance requirements,” said Sir Martin Sweeting, executive chairman of small-satellite builder Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL). “We have Brexit, and the U.K. is going to have to play in a different way overseas.”
A make-or-buy decision on launchers
Importing a launch vehicle to establish a service as early as possible may be necessary, but carries with it the danger of never creating a domestic space-launch industrial base, said Stuart McIntyre, CEO of Orbital Access.
Orbital Access is one of several companies proposing launch services based on new designs that will require substantial up-front investment, with the government seen as an indispensable co-investor.
McIntyre said Orbital Access’s horizontal-launch system — a wide-body aircraft modified to carry a launch vehicle to altitude, then release it — would require around 500 million British pounds ($644 million) to take it through design and development.
“It’s an early-stage design at this point,” McIntyre said. “It could get more expensive, or less expensive — probably the former.”
McIntyre’s conceded that importing a vehicle is the only way to come close to meeting the government’s 2020 target for service introduction. But imports don’t build an industrial base.
“Do we just want to import systems for a temporary campaign to launch assets from a place we’ve invested in building, but with no real legacy of value left at the end of the launch campaign?” McIntyre said.
“This is about industrial ambition as much as a simple exercise of a launcher coming to a location in the UK. We’ve got to see this as an aerospace industry that we are recreating around a launcher.”
Andy Bradford, co-founder of UK Launch Services Ltd., formed to provide logistics and other services on behalf of a spaceport, said Britain needed to move quickly to capture the favorable market conditions no prevailing, with a global small-satellite industry demanding more launch options.
Forget the 2020 deadline, he said. “Many of the new launch services you see now have been in existence for 10 years,” Bradford said. “That is the reality, it takes years. If you don’t have anything on the pad doing full-duration [static-fire] tests right now, you’re not having anything in 2020.”
Bradford said he had not resolved the dilemma of wanting a made-in-UK system while accepting the need to establish a service as quickly as possible.
“There is a market opportunity, and the window may close if we don’t have something operational in that time frame,” he said of the 2020 target. “Other people are going to get things up and running. What’s our answer?”
Stuart Martin, CEO of the UK Satellite Applications Catapult, a nonprofit company created to stimulate space sector investment — up to now, mainly in downstream services, not infrastructure — said the timing is right for a UK small-satellite launch service.
For small-satellite constellations, the never-ending launch campaign
“Satellite launches until around 2012 totaled around 40-50 per year,” Martin said. “This year, it will be around 300 or even more. We are currently tracking about 50 constellations, totaling about 3,000 satellites for communications, Earth observation, all sorts of systems. Even if only a fraction of these come about, there’s going to be an increase” in demand for launches.
It’s not just the number of new projects, but also the business model many of them share — small, low-orbiting satellites with in-orbit service lives of from one two five years, meaning launch becomes central to the business plan forever.
“Rather than a launch and early-operations phase and then routine operations, these new constellations will include launch as a key feature of the operations,” Martin said.
Those backing a domestic UK launch capability appear to agree that a large, up-front investment by the government is a crucial element.
Martin cautioned that the history of the rocket industry worldwide is not pleasant reading for those looking at launch services purely as a business.
“A weakness of the space industry over the last 50 years is that it’s been fully reliant on government support, which enabled the industry to happen,” Martin said. “There are almost zero cases of companies really making good financial returns from the launch industry.
“It’s a weakness for us, a vulnerability for us that we are so dependent on such an uneconomic sector.”