Aerospace & Defence

The UK space race: extraordinary breakthroughs

11th May 2022
Kiera Sowery

The UK has long been a pioneer in space technology. From the development of early rocket technology to the first 150lb microsatellite, UK heritage speaks to the demand and opportunities of the commercial space age.

The UK is considered a world-leader in space technology and services with its universities respected globally for their space science research.

Despite this, there has never been a rocket launch from UK soil however 2022 is set to be the year where history is broken.

The aim is for the UK to be at the forefront of new developments in small satellite launch and sub-orbital flight to establish a new commercial space age. Industry and government have therefore come together, developing spaceports and launch vehicle and satellite technology.

Over the next 7 months, the UK is expected to make extraordinary breakthroughs in aerospace, with the first satellite fired into orbit from a UK launchpad. Bringing launch to the UK will be a catalyst for growth in most sectors of the industry, but who are the contenders?

Promestheus-2

This week the Defence Procurement Minister, Jeremy Quin announced that this summer the first satellite, Prometheus-2, will launch from the UK from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay.

Prometheus-2 was built by In-Space Missions Ltd and designed with Airbus Defence and Space and is a collaboration between the UK Ministry of Defence and international partners, including the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Two ‘cubesats’, the size of shoeboxes, will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals including GPS and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for more collaborative and connected space communication system with our allies.

This launch will help the Ministry of Defence to better understand how the UK and its international partners can work together to create a more capable and flexible system at a lower cost than could be achieved alone. The technology on the satellites will enable the Ministry of Defence to identify new techniques and algorithms for operating satellites and data processing.

Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, Ian Annett said: “We are putting the UK at the forefront of small satellite launch, providing world-leading capability for commercial customers and governments within a global market, opening new opportunities and inspiring the current and next generation of British space scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.

“These satellites showcase the UK’s strengths in designing and building satellites. Being able to launch from the UK and across Europe for the first time will boost our satellite industry further, create high skilled jobs across the country and deliver a key ambition of the National Space Strategy.”

Prime rocket

Orbex, a UK-based private, low-cost orbital launch services company, has unveiled the full-scale prototype of the Prime orbital space rocket on its dedicated launch pad publicly for the first time.

This launch represents a huge step forward for the company as it prepares for the first vertical rocket launch to orbit from UK soil. The Prime rocket is the first ‘micro-launcher’ developed in Europe to reach this stage of technical readiness.

The two-stage rocket is 19-metres long, powered by seven engines and being designed and manufactured in the UK and Denmark. The six rocket engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel it through the atmosphere to an altitude of around 8km. The single engine on the second stage of the rocket will complete the journey to Low Earth Orbit, allowing the release of its payload, small commercial satellites, into Earth’s orbit.

The rocket is powered by a renewable bio-fuel, bio-propane, allowing the rocket to significantly reduce carbon emissions compared to other rockets of a similar size.

Research by the University Exeter demonstrates that a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket will produce 96% lower carbon emissions than comparable space launch systems using fossil fuels.

Orbex can enter a phase of integrated testing, allowing dress rehearsals of rocket launches and the development and optimisation of launch procedures. It is also a reusable rocket engineered to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit.

The vision

The vision for the 2020s is that the UK has the infrastructure and capabilities to achieve small satellite launch. The UK space sector will capture an increasing share of the global launch market with maturing spaceflight supply chains, regulators and industrial capability.

During the 2030s UK spaceflight supply chains and services are expected to be sought after for their reputation and the vital contribution they give to UK space science and discovery.

By 2040, the UK will lead commercial access to space for small satellites and will be home to game-changing spaceplane technology

Why the UK?

With access to a range of valuable polar and sun-synchronous orbits, the UK has the necessary geography to host commercial spaceflight activities. It also has the right environment to grow space businesses with the UK space sector worth $14.8bn.

Lastly, the UK has strong global relationships giving it access to markets, financing and supply chains around the world.

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