UK Launch

14th January 2015

The UK’s first Space Transportation workshop was attended by just under 60 people at Kingston University London’s Roehampton Vale campus.

Adam Baker and Malcolm Claus from the University’s School of Aerospace Engineering opened the meeting, explaining the interest in a UK launcher, the desire to bring together a UK supply chain, and the importance of training the next generation of engineers who understand the problems of launchers as well as satellites.

Nick Cox from the UK Space Agency's (business) Growth directorate explained the strategic interest in Access to Space with one of the identified disruptive markets being that of small payload launch. He stressed that affordable, readily available on demand launch capability needs to be considered if the space revenue generation targets the UK has set itself are to be met. However there are significant challenges to developing a UK Space transportation capability and understanding the market and hence the viability of the business model to develop such a capability is key. Maria Kalama from the Technology Strategy Board, TSB also mentioned that their space strategy will be issued next month with a focus on propulsion and technology demonstration.

Andrew Badham described the scope of the current study undertaken by the newly formed CAA Commercial Space Operation Working Group. Particular points relevant to the current meeting were that vertical launch, while not originally considered, is now in scope and will influence site selection for a future spaceport and potentially at a separate and relatively basic facility since a small launcher will need only a very basic facility (launch pad and tower + range safety equipment, which may even be temporary).

Adam Baker from Newton Launch Systems and Kingston University, representing the National Space Technical Committee's Access to Space working group, summarised the Space Innovation & Growth Strategy restack in 2013, one outcome of which was the National Space Technology Strategy, NSTP. A clearly defined set of Access to Space recommendations has been defined, so it is up to UK industry to team up and propose work that aligns with this strategy. Critical small launcher technologies including high thrust chemical propulsion, lightweight structural technologies and avionics for guidance and control are covered. The strategy is available at the Space Special Interest Group through TSB’s 'Connect' website.

Andy Bradford summarised SSTL's range of spacecraft from 15kg up to 4tonnes, and described the current, mostly expensive and inconvenient means of launching these into orbit. He emphasised that buying a launch is like 'buying a lobster', i.e. the price is seasonal! This makes it difficult to build robust business cases based on small, low cost spacecraft. The 'business as usual' approach to launch is viewed as unsustainable. A dedicated, viable small satellite launcher would give SSTL the ability to underpin its strategic business and further grow its export potential.

Anthony Haynes and Simon Feast from Reaction Engines, followed by Onno Verberne from Nammo in Norway presented two quite different launcher concepts aiming to address the problem:

  • Blue Boomerang is a 3 stage semi reusable vehicle, designed around a high performance Russian LOx bipropellant engine, which could deliver 200kg to a polar orbit with a target price of £7M (although this depends on meeting reusability targets).
  • North Star is a 3 stage vehicle based on a single modular hydrogen peroxide hybrid rocket engine , targeting delivery of ~20kg to a polar orbit for a price of €1M. North Star would launch from the Andoya range which already has the full range of safety equipment required for orbit launch.
  • One shortcoming with both of these and many other concepts is confidence about the price points and recovery of development costs. Current launch customers must be persuaded to switch from secondary launchers, and new markets must be opened. If the launch price reflects a significant development cost, and its associated cost of finance, it can rapidly become uncompetitive.

Martin Heywood from Newton Launch Systems who sponsored the meeting, commented on these challenges underlining the fact that a sound business plan is needed together with a need to significantly reduce the cost of technology. Reusable small vehicles are extremely challenging and advocates invariably overestimate the market size in their economic predictions especially considering that the current addressable market is too small to justify a new entrant into the launch market. Newton continues to seek a sound business case and to that end continues to focus on understanding the market for small payload launch.

Three short presentations followed, starting with two from Kingston University students who had been researching approaches to very low cost bipropellant propulsion and structural approaches able to meet the demanding inert mass fraction requirements for a small launcher. Airborne Engineering Ltd based at Westcott then showed examples of its chemical propulsion test facilities and recent hot firing programmes. Airborne aims to support much of what might be required for a future small launcher programme.

UKLaunch concluded with an elevator pitch session giving companies and individuals a ten minute opportunity to showcase recent work potentially of value to a future UK small launcher programme.

  • Ray Bainbridge from Tranquility Aerospace highlighted their university programme including a 5kN bipropellant engine designed with StrathClyde University.
  • Moog described their 1.1kN apogee engine being developed for ESA and which could be used in a Blue Boomerang small launcher.
  • Microlaunch advocated the benefits of pressure stabilised structures.
  • Bristol Spaceplanes emphasised the value of small scale demonstrations to 'dent the mindset' (about conventional approaches to launch)
  • CST summarised the ongoing and robust market for launching small spacecraft as secondary payloads on Russian rockets.
  • Two practically focused projects on water cooled and aerospike bipropellant engine nozzles from final year Kingston University students were presented, followed by a brief introduction to the importance of IP considerations and strategy in the life cycle of any new business, from K2IP associates.

The Bloodhound project finished up by reminding audiences that the project had tested the largest rocket motor in Europe at Newquay in the UK in late 2012 and that following the planned completion in late 2015, the knowledge, skills, reputation and fund raising talents of the team would be available and could be harnessed towards a new challenge such as a UK space launch.

The meeting summed up with a few brief conclusions, including 4 major points:

  • Establishing sufficient market remains a major challenge to the viability of a new small launcher.
  • A further workshop to address specific challenges could take place as soon as October 2014, linked to the UK Space Propulsion Working Group which is supported by the TSB.
  • TSB have also suggested engaging the Satellite Applications Catapult, since their focus on the downstream market might offer some insight into the currently uncertain market case for a small launcher.
  • Lastly, the technology. Although the market must come first, as the first part of 'a new approach to access to space',, whether the required performance can be developed for a cost that the market is able to bear is also unclear. Many options for technical solutions exist. Supposedly low cost approaches especially if developed abroad will only be accessible for a price - although international cooperation may reduce (UK government) investment costs, any form of government subsidy be it from the UK or abroad has a poor track record of delivering low cost. The UK has clearly demonstrated that all the technology can be found in this country – if fully utilised, backed by a strong business case and harnessed with very cost focused system engineering, the UK could meet its own needs and build a very attractive export product.