When will the UK take another giant leap into space?

Tim Peake set to return to ESA as the race to first vertical launch from British soil continues

Feature It promises to be a busy few years for British spaceflight. Astronaut Tim Peake is due to return to the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK's first vertical launches are set to take place in Scotland.

The Register spoke to the Libby Jackson of the UK Space Agency during July's Blue Dot Festival, who told us that Peake's lengthy leave of absence from ESA was due to end in October. Several astronauts in Peake's group have gone on to multiple missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and the question of when Britain might once more utter "Come on, Tim" at a dot whizzing through the night sky remains open.

"The question rests very much with Tim," said Jackson, noting that until he returns to ESA, there is no way for the agency to assign him another flight.

And goodness, ESA has plans for its astronauts. "We will see a European Space Agency astronaut fly to the Lunar Gateway," predicted Jackson.

But European boots on the Moon? It'll be down to agreements made at the ministerial level and discussions with NASA to get an ESA astronaut on the Moon. "But that," said Jackson, "is certainly one of the ambitions."

Jackson was a little more cagey when it came to the question of Russia and the antics of the erstwhile boss of Roscosmos. "Russia and NASA continue to work together with the International Space Station, for very good reasons," she said, "because to not work together would still require them to work together to work out how not to work together."

Try saying that after too many drinks.

And so the ISS project continues, despite outbursts from some on the ground. Jackson noted that the pressure vessels should be good until at least 2030. "Nobody would be talking about extending it... If they weren't absolutely certain that the hardware could sustain all of that," she said.

As for Russia going its own way, "the ISS is a completely integrated vehicle," explained Jackson. "You can't separate it, you can't operate one without the other."

Onwards and upwards?

While cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos has continued (to the point where cosmonauts are set to fly aboard US spacecraft and vice versa) other Russian services have been abruptly cut, adding urgency to the desire to launch spacecraft from UK soil.

At present, it appears very likely that a Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall will win the race, with a repurposed Boeing 747 taking off from the runway and subsequently dropping the LauncherOne rocket. Vertical launches will follow in 2023, with pads in Sutherland and Shetland vying to be first to host a lift-off.

Scott Hammond, deputy CEO of SaxaVord, told us that construction in Shetland was under way. "We started digging in March," he said.

"At the moment, we've excavated two launch pads, created the road down to the site and we've excavated pads for wherever telemetry and tracking are going."

The work is leading up to that first orbital launch, the Pathfinder vehicle that Hammond told us was currently scheduled for March 2023.

A suborbital launch with HyImpulse, a German client, is planned for the end of 2022. "We can't have our very first activity being an orbital launch," explained Hammond, "because this is brand new to the United Kingdom; everybody's learning. So we always wanted a build-up program."

Rocket Lab's Peter Beck has frequently spoken of the challenges inherent in building launchpads, and Hammond quoted Beck, saying: "If you think developing a space rocket's difficult, try building a spaceport!"

Hammond was hopeful that SaxaVord would receive its license to operate as a spaceport by October or November. By 2023, he reckons the site could play host to three orbital launches, driven more by UK authorities getting to grips with the licensing process than anything else.

Being a commercial operation, SaxaVord can be agile but must also give consideration to where revenues are coming from. Hammond would not be drawn on when the company would become cash-positive, but did note ongoing supply chain and inflationary challenges could cause headaches as time wears on.

And then there is its rival – Space Hub Sutherland. Objections from Wildland Limited, a land management firm connected to SaxaVord shareholder Anders Povlsen, were dismissed last year, leaving the way clear for construction of the facility to begin.

At present, it seems likely that SaxaVord will indeed be the first to fire off a vertically launched rocket from UK soil. However, the rocket itself will come courtesy of Lockheed Martin (although other manufacturers, such as Skyrora, will also use the complex). For Sutherland, it looks like Orbex and its UK-produced Prime rocket will follow close behind.

However, as events ranging from Roscosmos and NASA's tussles over the International Space Station, and arguments over space ports in UK courts have demonstrated, nothing can truly be taken for granted in the world of rockets and launches. ®

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