This was a disappointing week for the embryonic British space industry when the first ever launch from the UK ended up with a big splash somewhere in the Atlantic. Virgin Orbit dropped a wing-carried rocket from its repurposed Jumbo Jet ‘Cosmic Girl’, but something went wrong. Millions of pounds worth of satellites tumbled into the ocean or burnt up in the atmosphere.
The launch failure was a devastating opener to the UK’s campaign to establish itself as a player in the potential $1tn-plus commercial satellite business, although thankfully the UK Space Agency and the Cornwall Spaceport are making all the right noises about carrying on with further launches.
The lost satellites included the fascinating Space Forge, an experimental micro-factory in zero-gravity designed to make new metal alloys and materials for use in green tech and computing. Other areas for the burgeoning satellite industry include monitoring climate change alongside military applications for ‘surveillance’ and commercial communications where the Elon Musk Starlink constellation of Low Earth Orbit units have been hailed as a game changer by the Ukrainian military.
Virgin Orbit’s failure to deliver its satellite load is a massive disappointment, but it happens. Space launches are notoriously tricky. Many fail because something tiny in the complex rocket system fails. According to reports, Virgin Orbit assumed four of the 17 launches it planned from Cornwall to 2030 would fail. Indeed, most satellites are insured for precisely that reason.
The UK remains part of, and is a net contributor, to the European Space Agency, and is at the forefront of the European space industry. Developing a launch capability for the UK is economically critical. The space sector employs over 50,000 skilled workers and contributes over £16bn to the economy. The UK is the second largest manufacturer of satellites after the USA, with a significant portion of the LEO birds industry around Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde, where new rocket builders Orbex and Skyora are planning launches.
It’s a fascinating business. Miniaturisation means satellites have gone from the size of a double-decker bus to the size of a shoe box. It means even the tiny Virgin rocket was able to carry nine satellites. SpaceX can deliver over 50 of Musk’s Starlinks in a single launch.
A few years ago, I was involved in trying to finance a plan to build Prestwick airport into a spaceport using a launch system like Virgin Orbit. The imperative behind the deal was the need for more commercial launch capacity for the increasing number of satellite launches. That is easing and the infrastructure is developing. The Cornwall Spaceport is up and running. SpaceHub Sunderland will become a proper vertical rocket site, while the SaxaVord site in Shetland could launch this year.
The biggest player in the space game is SpaceX. It has been launching rockets into the deep blue for nearly 15 years. Musk was a founder in 2002, investing his own cash and other private money. It’s now gone stratospheric with an implied value of $137bn, potentially making it the world’s third most valuable aerospace firm after Raytheon and Boeing.
SpaceX launched over 60 rockets in 2022 and has a massive programme in place to launch its own Starship rocket this year, perhaps taking tourists and other commercial interests around the moon. It is supporting Nasa’s programme for the 2025 Artemis Moonshot programme.
There is undoubtedly business out there for SpaceX. It has launched over 80 satellites for Starlink competitor, the UK government owned OneWeb which plans a constellation of 648 satellites to provide internet service around the globe (502 are already up).
SpaceX is launching rockets like it was Bonfire Night and the fourth of July rolled into one – more of its own Starlink internet satellites, more Dragon missions to the Space Station, sending a Japanese lander to the Moon, as well as larger communication satellites for other users. In just a few years, one of their Falcon 9 re-useable rockets has completed 14 missions. By way of comparison, the venerable Space Shuttle Discovery made 39 flights over 27 years.
SpaceX is brilliant. It’s not just built a brilliant reusable rocket but shaken the NASA bureaucracy to its core. It’s woken the globe to the opportunities to innovate and launch. It’s spurred new companies worldwide to see what can be done. I will be properly impressed when a SpaceX Starship lands a mission on the Moon, but there will be other engineers out there who see opportunities to make what SpaceX does, but better.
SpaceX will not be a monopoly in space, just like Tesla is no longer a monopoly in EVs. However, space is definitely a real business and the UK needs to become a big player.
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