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Britain rejoins the space race ThePipaNews

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The UK is a neat place to launch from. Being an island at a fairly high latitude means rockets can launch north over uninhabited seas and enter pole-to-pole orbit around our planet. Such orbits are particularly useful for Earth observation satellites, allowing them to take pictures of the planet as it orbits below, which can be used “to observe the growth of agricultural land or for maritime security” among many other applications, said Peter Shaw, senior lecturer in astronautics from Kingston University in the UK.

Virgin Orbit’s flight is expected to be just the beginning of the country’s launch capabilities. Two more spaceports are currently under development, one at the northernmost tip of mainland Britain in Sutherland, Scotland, and another in the Shetland Islands, even further north, off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more classic vertical rocket launches as soon as next year. Sutherland will be home to Orbex, a British launch company based out of Forres near the Scottish city of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights from American company ABL Space Systems.

Another British launch company, Edinburgh-based Skyrora, also hopes to reach orbit next year using a mobile launch platform that can be packed into a shipping container and which it says could be used from a number of locations. In the coming weeks, the company is expected to conduct a test “jump” into space with a small rocket, which will briefly reach a cosmic height of 102 kilometers, via a launch from Iceland.

If these companies are successful, there are riches to be had. With no operational launch site in Europe (sites are being considered in Germany, Portugal and elsewhere), European space companies, rather than sending their satellites to the US or elsewhere, could make a relatively shorter jaunt to the UK. “We see a great opportunity to be one of the only launch states to serve the European market,” says Shaw. “If we get there first, a lot of the European business will come to us for small satellite launches.”

This not only makes for easier logistics, but also means that satellite operators can book rides on smaller rockets at shorter notice rather than having to wait to connect a ride on larger rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the US. “You can wait up to two or three years before your launch,” says Shaw. Smaller rockets may instead mean that launch opportunities are available in days or weeks. Every UK business will be hoping they can tap into this market. “There’s a real healthy competition,” says Shaw.

Cape Canaveral won’t be – at most there could be a few launches a month from all the UK’s spaceports combined. Still, it’s a fascinating time, starting with Virgin Orbit’s effort this fall. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off Russian launch capability from the West, there is even more demand for launch capability in the Western Hemisphere,” said Laura Forczyk, founder of space consultancy Astralytical. “A launch facility in the UK could help ease the launch bottleneck. There is a demand bottleneck.”

It is an uncertain period in Britain, with a new government almost immediately followed by the end of the Elizabethan era. Now under the reign of King Karl III, a new era begins – an era that is not bound by the borders of the earth. Long in the making, Britain is about to once again become a spacefaring nation. “It’s going to be absolutely amazing,” says Shaw.

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