Some time next year, we expect that a giant Boeing 747 will take off from Newquay in Cornwall, with a rocket strapped to its inner port wing. It will then soar out into the Atlantic to a launch altitude of some 40,000 feet and release its payload. As it banks away, the two-stage rocket will ignite, accelerating to “escape velocity” before delivering an array of mini satellites into low-Earth orbit.
The Virgin Orbit mission will be a major first – the start of satellite launches from UK soil. Great Britain will be well and truly back in the space launch business and on the way to capturing this Government’s first strategic goal on the high frontier: a 10 per cent market share of the global space business by 2030. It won’t stop in Cornwall. We also committed to new vertical-launch operations from the Shetlands and Sutherland in Scotland and Snowdonia in Wales, too.
Space is opening up. As with the early airlines, space launching used to be a national “flag carrier” endeavour, dominated by governments. But as rocket and satellite technology becomes more compact and affordable, private enterprise is getting in on the act. This country is well positioned to reap the benefits from a global sector expected to be worth £400 billion per year by 2030.
That is why we’re developing a National Space Strategy. And why the new regulations I issued this week are so important. They allow for the launching of satellites from UK territory for the first time, and companies seeking to do so can apply for licences from this summer. The regulations are the most flexible in the world, allowing firms to meet safety and environmental requirements in the ways they think best. The UK’s new spaceports should be in operation by next year, bringing hundreds of skilled jobs to remote areas. In fact, I will be visiting the beginnings of one of these spaceports in Cornwall next month.
There, we can showcase the UK as one of the most attractive places to launch from. Geography helps us – we sit on the edge of the Atlantic, with wide open spaces in which to launch safely, and our northerly position makes us ideal for launches into sought-after polar orbits.
We already possess a vibrant space industry, being world leaders in small satellite technology and space-related services. Satellites are shrinking and the potential for cheap space-based Wi-Fi covering remote areas is just one benefit of this burgeoning market. All we have to do is not squander our opportunities as we have in the past.
The UK was Western Europe’s leader in space in the 1950s and 1960s. Blue Streak, a ballistic missile design, was turned into a reliable first-stage launcher but then abandoned. Other casualties were the “Black” series of launchers – Black Knight, Black Prince and Black Arrow. The latter was the only British launcher to insert a British-made satellite, called Prospero, into orbit. That was in 1971 – just before the project was cancelled.
The UK therefore enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only country to have launched its own satellite on its own launcher and then withdrawn from the game. Why did we do this? Well, money is always a factor but it was also a failure of ambition. We have scientific and engineering talent in abundance here in these islands. We just have to back it.
Right now, British engineers are working on the SABRE project (Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine), that can transition to rocket mode at velocities up to five times the speed of sound. A SABRE powered spaceplane could make most conventional single-use rocket launchers obsolete. London to Sydney would take two hours. There’s a problem, though: engines operating at Mach 5 melt. So, our engineers have come up with a unique cooling system which can lower the temperature of the air entering the engine from more than 1,000 Celsius to ambient temperatures within 1/100th of a second.
This is blue-sky, world-beating stuff – a “moonshot”, if you will. Can this country do it? Of course it can. Just look at our vaccination programme, proof positive of what we can achieve when we pull together.
This Government believes in harnessing the entire power of the nation, combining business and the state, to set and achieve the highest goals. All we need is the ambition.
This Article firstly Publish on www.telegraph.co.uk