PARIS — Orbital Access Ltd. of Britain, which is designing a small-satellite launcher that would lift off from a horizontal runway under the belly of a modified jet airliner, has won a contract from the European Space Agency (ESA) to carry the project to system definition before a preliminary design review.
The four-month contract is valued at 200,000 British pounds ($257,000). Orbital Access estimates that carrying the program through to first flight would take about four years and cost some 500 million pounds.
The contract comes as the British government debates how far it wants to go in promoting a domestic space-launch capability.
Up to now, the government has focused on relatively small feasibility studies for spaceport locales and launch-vehicle designs, and on clearing regulatory obstacles to a commercial space-launch business:
There has been no commitment to actually funding development of one or more systems and spaceports.
Nonetheless, a preliminary stamp of approval from the 22-nation ESA is a valuable endorsement for Orbital Access.
“This milestone marks the start of the formal technical development program that, after the definition stage, leads to preliminary design review and then to full design, prototype and testing,” Orbital Access Chief Executive Stuart McIntyre said in a statement.
A UK supply chain
The company will be working with British Aerospace, Glasgow University, the Centre for Advanced Space Transportation at Strathclyde University and Fluid Gravity Engineering to complete the ESA-financed work.
The contract also may bolster Orbital Access in its attempt to dissuade the British government and industry to import a rocket as a way of reducing development costs and keeping to the government’s announced 2020 goal for a first launch from a British spaceport.
McIntyre has said repeatedly that the value of a British space-launch capability lies in the industrial ecosystem that would be created by a fully British program, meaning launch vehicle, spaceport and surrounding infrastructure.
Also arguing on behalf of a fully domestic program — if the British government decides to make access to space a strategic priority — is the mountain of technology transfer licensing that would confront any effort to import a rocket developed somewhere else.