Will Britain join the space race?

Some in Parliament are advocating for a British spaceport, but if the country wants to compete in the satellite-launch market, it will have some catching up to do.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
British astronaut Tim Peake poses with the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module that carried him and his crew to and from the ISS, at the Science Museum in London, Britain, Jan. 26, 2017.

If some Members of Parliament lawmakers get their way, satellites will blast off from British soil within three years.

A draft “Spaceflight Bill” unveiled Tuesday detailed regulations for a British spaceport that could begin operations as early as 2020. A “Launch UK” conference brought space industry leaders together in London to discuss this possibility.

While Britain has sent astronauts and satellites into orbit for decades, it had to partner with the United States, Russia, and other countries for a ride. But as a lucrative new market emerges for satellite launches, some say it’s time for Britain to develop its own launch capability.

“We have never launched a spaceflight before from this country,” said the country’s aviation minister, Lord Tariq Ahmad, in a statement. “Our ambition is to allow for safe and competitive access to space from the UK, so we remain at the forefront of a new commercial space age, for the next 40 years.”

As The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported, small, inexpensive satellites known as CubeSats have created a lucrative new market for satellite technology and launches in recent years.  

Britain has benefited from this growth, according to a report published last June by the House of Commons’s Science and Technology Committee. “In 2012–13, the UK space economy generated a turnover of £11.8 billion [and] directly employed over 35,000 people.”

The report’s authors “found an ambitious sector poised for even greater success, particularly in the field of small satellites,” and urged the nation to develop this potential by “expanding the use of ‘space-enabled services’ by business and by the public sector. Achieving this target could deliver billions of pounds worth of new exports and up to 100,000 skilled jobs.”

The Royal Academy of Engineering says that a Britain-based spaceport “has the potential to catalyse the market for low-cost access to space, hand-in-hand with the development of smaller satellites that could be launched from the spaceport.”

The draft bill unveiled Tuesday sets out regulations for a spaceport to operate. Last May, Queen Elizabeth II suggested to Parliament that though the spaceport might not be built with public funds, the government could "ease regulatory burdens" to encourage investors. Jo Johnson, the nation's science minister, says he wants British spaceflight to be “primarily a commercial enterprise."

But it’s not yet clear if the private sector will want to pick up the tab. Ruy Pinto, the chief operating officer of telecom firm Inmarsat, told Aviation Week that pro-satellite incentives are more important than having a spaceport."

Firms like Inmarsat already have several attractive options for getting their satellites into space, including deploying them from the International Space Station or launching them aboard a low-cost Indian rocket. If Britain wants to compete with those options, it will have some catching up to do.

Developing Britain's space sector could also complicate its relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA). That 22-member inter-governmental organization exists separately from the European Union, and Britain plans to stay in even as it leaves the EU.

But the spaceport’s backers may want to keep more of Britain's ESA contribution at home. The report from the House of Commons, published just days before the Brexit vote, said, "Over three-quarters of the UK Space Agency’s expenditure is channelled through the European Space Agency which gives the UK a high return. An even greater return could be secured, however, through establishing a strong national space program."

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