A weathered metal ring, bearing the scars of space travel, stands proudly at the entrance of Skyrora’s rocket manufacturing facility in Cumbernauld, Scotland. This six-foot-diameter loop, retrieved from the Australian outback after nearly 50 years in space, represents the remnants of Britain’s sole satellite launch, conducted in 1971 via a Black Arrow rocket.
Now, the United Kingdom is poised to reenter the satellite launch arena, with multiple companies competing for a share of this burgeoning industry. Among them, Skyrora has commenced the production of its XL rockets in Cumbernauld, anticipating its inaugural launch next year from the SaxaVord rocket base on Unst, Shetland.
Euan Clark, a project team lead at Skyrora, shared, “The launch of Black Arrow in 1971 was Britain’s only successful satellite placement into orbit. So we brought back a piece of it – a faring that connected the first and second stages before it fell to Earth – and have put it at the entrance of our manufacturing hall to make it clear that, after half a century, we are back in business and ready to go into space again.”
Other rocket companies, including Orbex Prime, are also gearing up for UK launches, with Sutherland Spaceport in northern Scotland as a prominent launch site. Additional locations in the Western Isles, Kintyre Peninsula, Wales, and Cornwall are being considered for future launches.
The revival of UK satellite launches, primarily situated north of Hadrian’s Wall, has been made possible by the remarkable miniaturization of modern electronics. Satellites, once the size of cars, now often resemble shoeboxes, necessitating more modest launchers like the Skyrora XL.
The three-stage Skyrora XL, equipped with 3D printed engines, aims to launch approximately a dozen satellites annually from Unst, the northernmost inhabited region in the British Isles. These rockets will transport probes on polar orbits, facilitating Earth-monitoring studies, including sea-level fluctuations and ice-sheet changes.
Clark envisions environmental monitoring and communication satellites forming the core of their business. Each Skyrora rocket can carry payloads weighing up to 300kg, at a cost of £30,000 to £36,000 per kilogram, using 50,000 liters of fuel to reach heights of 1,000km.
Engineers at Cumbernauld are diligently constructing engines for Skyrora XL’s inaugural orbital flight, scheduled for next year. Subsequently, the pace at the manufacturing plant is set to accelerate significantly.
“In a few years, we hope to launch a rocket every month,” Clark declared. To meet this ambitious schedule, they will need to build rocket engines every three to four days.
These highly complex engines utilize a kerosene-peroxide propellant, offering several advantages, including reduced pollution and the ability to remain stored on the launch pad for extended periods, a significant benefit given Shetland’s unpredictable weather.
Skyrora also aspires to contribute to cleaning up near-Earth space by utilizing its satellites to safely remove or reposition defunct satellites and rocket debris.
With support from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, Skyrora seeks to carve a niche in the growing global market for small satellites, defined as those under 500kg. The small satellite launch industry has witnessed explosive growth, with over 400 launches in 2019, up from around 50 in 2012.
The future of space exploration in the UK holds the promise of technological advancements and environmental stewardship in Earth’s orbit.
By Impact Lab