Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and is Chair of the UK Space Agency.
This report comes from ConservativeHome’s intrepid reporter at the northern tip of the UK – Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, roughly on the same latitude as Bergen in Norway. Heading north from here, there really is no further landfall. And that is the reason why I am here, at SaxaVord, where one of the UK’s main rocket launch facilities is being developed. If you launched a rocket here due north and it the continued direct over the Bering Strait and down the Pacific, the first land it would actually cross over is New Zealand.
Historically, most rocket launch sites have been near the equator. That enables them to use the force of the earth’s rotational orbit to throw big, heavy satellites east and up into high orbit. A patch of land at the equator is moving at 1,000 miles per hour, but at about 500mph up at this Shetland altitude. Equatorial launch saves a lot of effort if you are trying to get a big satellite into geo-stationary orbit – 27,000 km up, so that it can provide, for example, radio-communications
Now, however, there are increasingly numbers of satellites in low earth orbit. Many of them are in orbit over the poles with the earth spinning beneath them. So if they are doing earth observations they build up a picture of the earth beneath them one swath at a time. It makes sense for these to launch out over ocean towards the pole.
That is why, as Science Minister, I identified satellite as one of the Eight Great Technologies, and publicly said there were “opportunities for the UK to host a space port if we get the regulatory framework right.” That was ten years ago. It got no media attention at the time. But, since then, successive Science Ministers and Transport Secretaries have seized the opportunity, and introduced the Space Industry Act 2018, which set up a regime under the Civil Aviation Authority for licensing space launch. There is now a race between us, Norway and Sweden to be Europe’s leading space launch, and our early legislation helps gives us a real advantage. That is why George Freeman, the current Science Minister, is right to identify smart pro-innovation regulation as a crucial part of our competitive advantage.
We first reaped the benefits of this regulatory framework with the launch of Virgin Orbit from Newquay. That generated enormous excitement and interest. It was an unusual horizontal launch, with the rocket slung under the wing of a jumbo jet. Enabling that launch to happen safely from a busy civilian airport into crowded airspace was an extraordinary achievement for the CAA, UK Space Agency and government as a whole. Other airports, such as Prestwick, are also keen to offer such horizontal launch.
But many players in the industry still believe that the future will be vertical launch out over ocean. That makes the north of Scotland a strong candidate to be Europe’s leading centre for rocket launch. There is also here a range of RAF facilities developed for radar during the war, which monitored Soviet-era activity in the Greenland/Iceland/Scotland gap. SaxaVord, where I write this piece on Monday, is one such site. There is also Orbex’s development of a Space port in Sutherland, close to the old Dounreay reactor site. These are two excellent opportunities for the UK.
There are always the sceptics who do not see the point of any of this – just thinking of Space as vainglorious projects for the rich. But Space is useful. It enables us to communicate, to navigate, and to track what is happening on earth. And there is now a surge of Space activity. Instead of being dominated by Government agencies getting into the detail of technology design, there are now entrepreneurs running flexible low cost projects.
That isn’t just Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. SaxaVord is a commercial project developed by local entrepreneurs who bought the site off the RAF, and only then turned to rocket launch and also run a gin distillery on the side. Rocket Factory Augsburg are one of the major rocket developers keen to use the launch site: they are using Bavarian automotive expertise. Their aim is to get from start to successful launch in six years and for a total cost of less than 100 million euros. If they launch next year from SaxaVord they will achieve that.
Our role at the UK Space Agency, which I chair, is not to run ambitious technology development programmes within the public sector. Instead, we create the environment in which a host of space companies large and small can operate and thrive. That means helping to get the right regulatory regime. We can also help with the start-up costs of risky enterprises – so we invested in the key rocket launch structure which Rocket Factory Augsburg will use. We fund discovery research that no company will pay for on their own. We also ensure that British researchers and space scientists get a key role in such projects funded by the European Space Agency and increasingly NASA as well. And I hope to be back up at SaxaVord next year to see this come to fruition with the first vertical space launch from the UK.