27th June 2020

Science UK-US sign agreement on space launch technology

Science UK-US sign agreement on space launch technology

Science

science Virgin OrbitImage copyright
Virgin Orbit

Image caption

Virgin Orbit, a California-based company, wants to operate from Cornwall.

Plans for a space launch capability on UK soil have been given a big boost.

Britain and America have signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement that will make it much easier for US firms to bring rocket hardware into the UK.

Ordinarily, very tight restrictions apply to the movement of such equipment because of its dual-use nature.

The agreement is therefore a must-have if US companies like Virgin Orbit and Lockheed Martin are to start launching satellites from Britain.

But this is not just about rockets; it’s the whole component supply chain that should now open up as well.

The UK’s Washington ambassador, Dame Karen Pierce, and US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation, Christopher Ford, signed the agreement on Tuesday.

Dame Karen said: “This agreement marks an exciting new area for UK-US space collaboration and represents a significant step towards US companies launching from UK spaceports.”

Several other steps are also needed before any rockets head to orbit from Britain.

Although some primary legislation has gone through parliament, there is still a suite of new regulations that are needed to oversee the safe operation of spaceports.

A consultation on these regulations will go out for comment this summer.

In parallel, local planning consents are required. For the proposed spaceport in Sutherland in the North of Scotland, this is likely to be considered next week.

Virgin Orbit, which is owned by UK entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson but based in California, wants to run its launch system out of Newquay in Cornwall.

This is a horizontal, or air-launched, system. That is, the rocket is carried to altitude by a conventional jet plane before being released and ignited.

Virgin Orbit recently held a suppliers day in Cornwall for local companies that wanted to work with it.

The UK arm of the US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin would like to launch rockets vertically from the ground. It has its eye on the proposed spaceport at Sutherland.

And there are, of course, a number of indigenous British companies with similar plans – the likes of Orbex and Skyrora. They’re developing and building their rockets onshore but they still need the government to put in place the necessary regulatory environment if they’re to see their hardware fly.

Other potential UK spaceports include Shetland, the Western Isles, Glasgow Prestwick, Campbeltown, and Snowdonia.

Access Space is an industry body that represents the small satellite sector. Its co-founder and director Tony Azzarelli told BBC News: “We are thrilled that the UK has signed such agreement as it would boost the space sector in the UK, both from lending a hand to US launchers, as well as increasing the importance of the UK as a launching state and thus investment from government to promote its own launch industry sector, eg Skyrora, Orbex, Reaction Engines, Rocket Plane, Spaceport Cornwall, Astroscale, etc.

“The deal would also give European companies an additional choice when coming to select a launching state.”

And Lockheed Martin UK tweeted: “We welcome this agreement which will be a catalyst for development of the UK space sector. As one of the world’s leading providers of space technologies, we look forward to supporting the UKG’s prosperity agenda through development of UK national space capabilities.”

Britain has a thriving space sector, producing both small and large satellites. At the moment, these spacecraft have to be shipped abroad to foreign launch centres if they’re to get into orbit.

National policy is to fill in the gaps in sovereign capability. Launch is one of these gaps. A major new testing centre is also being built at the Harwell science campus in Oxfordshire.

When these missing elements are in place, the UK will then have the full competence to build, test and launch its own space hardware.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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