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Issue 9: UK launch startups have their say

Europe in Space
Issue 9. Subscribers: 276.

Have UK-based launch startups been thrown into the deep end?
On Monday, I wrote a piece commenting on how the UK government’s announcement that it would ease the regulatory burden on US rocket builders wanting to launch from the UK included some unnecessarily hyperbolic language. After publishing the piece, I was told by someone with an influential position in the industry that I had missed the point.
He agreed that the language around the announcement was hyperbolic but what was more important was what wasn’t referenced. In his view, it appeared that while Virgin Orbit, a US-based launch provider. had been consulted about the changes, the government had not consulted with any of the country’s many homegrown launch startups. So I decided that I would. 
While representatives from the larger operators chose their words carefully, the smaller outfits were far more critical in their outlook. I have also included the view of one of the launch facilities in question, the UK Space Agency, and the UK Department of Transportation, which made the announcement, as I think it’s important to balance the argument. 
I have included all the comments below without editorial input or, where possible, my own bias.
Launch providers
Chris Larmour - Founder & CEO at Orbex.
“We are pleased to see the US and UK governments taking serious steps to open the US launch market to UK companies and vice versa. This kind of two-way agreement on licensing, regulation, and equal market access will make it much easier for UK-based firms like Orbex to operate in America and serve US-based launch customers who want to guarantee schedule and minimize their environmental impact from launch activities.”
Valentin Canales - Co-founder and Director at B2Space
“The recent UK/US launch agreement could bring important benefits to companies on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it will need to ensure that equal opportunities are given to UK launch companies to launch from the US, so they can compete fairly with their US counterparts.”
Joseph Ward - CEO & Director of Propulsion at SmallSpark Space Systems
“It’s extremely exciting to see the UK Government recognises the potential of providing LEO launch services from the UK; both the immense commercial and defence related benefits are clear. The launch market is a competitive industry, and I believe that native UK launch services, if their offerings are competitively priced and benefits sufficient, should be able to stand their own against any incoming US operators - though I would warn the government to ensure it takes care to open up the market slowly and carefully letting the UK companies prepare to compete, rather than encouraging an uneven playing field. UK startups have always been able to do more with less relative to their US counterparts. So, give them the chance to show what they can do. Companies like SmallSpark, Orbex, and Skyrora are all offering really exciting USPs and demonstrating you don’t need half a billion dollars to develop some really incredible technologies.” said Joseph Ward CEO & Director of Propulsion at SmallSpark Space Systems.
Paul Williams - Executive Director at BLACK ARROW.
“The agreements make it easy for UK Government to attract US spaceflight operators, which likely see it as being an opportunity to expand their global influence without making a long-term commitment or providing an undertaking to improve their offering. They will all operate Kerosene fuelled vehicles from runways (Newquay, Prestwick) or concrete pads (Shetland), using ‘containerised’ operations that fly in everything they need for the launch before flying out again, providing few jobs and little local business involvement. A photo opportunity for the small number of people involved, and backpats all round for local government, but no great community benefits. They undermine any attempt to develop an indigenous, sovereign capability at scale, especially those who wish to introduce environmentally sustainable methods, modern materials, and greener practices.”
Launch facilities
Melissa Thorpe - Head of Spaceport Cornwall
“From our experience working with a USA ITAR agreement with VO, this announcement is welcomed. Thanks to this partnership we have expedited local growth and are well underway towards creating 150 direct jobs and growing a Cornwall Space Cluster. All this has been a result of our partnership with Virgin Orbit. They have been the catalyst to this wider growth in Cornwall, directly supporting huge opportunities to local companies and the U.K. supply chain - from local food and drink businesses, our Higher and Further education institutions right through to marine businesses -  VO are having a positive impact.”
Her Majesty’s Government
A DfT spokesperson 
“The declaration signed between the UK and US Transport Secretaries is an important step in raising the UK’s position as a global spaceflight leader, ensuring we have the safest and most effective regulation of space activities.
The dual partnership will provide opportunities for both UK and US companies to operate from respective spaceports while introducing new customers and revenues to each. Through gaining access to the US, UK launch companies will benefit from more streamlined regulatory processes, resulting in greater efficiencies and reduction in resources, costs and duplication.”
Matt Archer  - Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency
“Space is a competitive, global business and we are focused on catalysing investment into the UK space sector, attracting significant expertise, and creating jobs across the country. The US space industry has an unrivaled launch heritage, and it is important to learn from our international partners and benefit from their expertise while supporting the development of the UK’s national capabilities and trailblazing launch companies.
The UK space industry has achieved considerable success in exports, with around a third (32% or £5.28 billion) of sector income stemming from abroad. North America accounts for 24% (approximately £1.26 billion) of UK space sector exports.”
My view
I think that Joseph Ward from SmallSpark Space Systems said it best. UK launch startups are world-class and if given the opportunity, they will be able to compete with anything that the world has to offer. 
I am, however, concerned that the government doesn’t appear to be taking a gradually considered approach. In fact, Virgin Orbit will be the first company to “launch” from the UK ever this year. With maiden launches planned for later this year or early 2023, Skyrora and Orbex will likely not be far behind and will still have an opportunity to compete. However, SmallSpak and B2Space are still years away from a maiden flight and will likely have a significantly harder time competing once they do make it to the launchpad.
Theoretically, this agreement will allow UK companies to send their services to the US. Sykora specifically has built the same kind of containerised launch system employed by Astra. This gives Skyrora the option to ship its rocket to any launch facility around the world, where it can be launched with minimal infrastructure. However, if UK-based launch startups were to attempt to operate within the US, they’d be competing against the same companies coming over to the UK plus several others. They would also be competing against the SpaceX rideshare service. Although not a guarantee, it’s reasonable to assume that US rocket builders are, as a result, going to get more out of the deal than their UK counterparts.
A closer look at the Vega C launch vehicle that is expected to debut in the next month or two. You can download a high-res version here.
News of the week
Are we there yet? - Airbus was awarded a contract from ESA to further develop the implementation of LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), which will be tasked with measuring gravitational waves. The system consists of three spacecraft that form an equilateral triangle deep in space, 2.5 million kilometres apart from each other. LISA is slated to be launched in the late 2030s.
It needs to be at least 3 times bigger - Spanish launch startup PLD Space has begun construction of a new engine testbench at Teruel Airport. The bench will be utilised to test the combustion chambers for the engines that will power the company’s Miura 5 rocket. PLD Space is currently working towards the maiden flight of Miura 1, a suborbital vehicle that will validate many of the elements that will fly aboard the company’s larger vehicle.
All aboard! - Italian rocket builder Avio has put the AVUM+ upper stage for the first Vega-C rocket aboard a truck to begin its journey to the launch site in French Guiana. The first, second, and third stages of the vehicle are already integrated. The LARES-2 primary payload and six small secondary payloads are scheduled to be shipped to Kourou in early June.
If we build it, they will come - Construction has begun at SaxaVord Spaceport with the conclusion of a groundbreaking ceremony on 19 May. The spaceport will feature three separate launchpads, the third of which will be called “Launchpad Elizabeth” in celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year. Thus far, Venture Orbital, Astra, Skyrora ABLE Space Systems, HyImpulse Technologies have all agreed to launch from Saxavord.
It’s for the environment, man - SmallSpark Space Systems has been awarded funding from Research England as part of its SPRINTForSpace programme to study propellants for the UK-based launch startup’s S4-HIVE rocket engine in collaboration with Dr Fengshu Yang and the University of Leicester. The funding will be utilised to explore propellant variants with the goal of increasing engine performance and reducing the emission of harmful NOX and carbon particulates.
And that’s where the pinball machine is going - Belgian satellite imaging company Aerospacelab revealed that it is working towards commissioning a new factory at the Monnet Center in Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve Science Park. The new factory features a total area of 2400 square meters which includes a 600 square meter ISO7 cleanroom. Aerospacelab is planning to begin work in the factory this summer and will manufacture, integrate, and test 24 satellites on a yearly base at the location.
Mi centrifuge casa su centrifuge casa - The European Space Agency and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs have announced that they will open up the Large Diameter Centrifuge facility at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands to UN Member States under the joint HyperGES fellowship
Your mission, should you choose to accept it - London-based Seraphim Space Camp, a VC-led accelerator for global space tech startups has announced its ninth cohort. The 11-week accelerator aims to push founders to fine-tune their investment pitch and connect with mentors. The program concludes with an investor day. The second companies selected are working on in-orbit transfer vehicles, space debris tracking, earth observation services, and space debris recycling. 
It’s the final countdown - The Airbus-built MEASAT-3d communications satellite arrived in French Guiana ahead of its launch aboard an Ariane 5 in June. The launch will be the first Ariane 5 flight since it carried James Webb to space in late December. The flight will also carry the CMS-02 communications satellite for the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Show me the money! - The British Design Fund has awarded £100,000 to microgravity research service provider Gravitilab Aerospace Services. The company is developing a fleet of sounding rockets capable of carrying between 2 and 20 kg payloads to various altitudes. The company is also working on a drone-based “drop-pod microgravity testing system.”
Startup of the week: porkchop (yup, it’s supposed to be lower case)
One of the most difficult elements of transportation, be it on earth or in space, is the last mile. This bridge between the large transport vehicle and the destination is one that has become a particular point of interest in the launch market. This is where porkchop comes in.
The Stockholm-based in-orbit logistics company was founded in 2019 and is developing porkchop M, an in-orbit transfer vehicle. The vehicle allows customers to launch aboard a SpaceX rideshare mission, for instance, benefiting from the more affordable launch cost while still getting a precise orbital insertion that would only have been possible with a dedicated launch.
What happens to the vehicle once the payloads have been deployed? Here’s where we find out what makes the porkchop M unique. It’s reusable! Once its initial manifest of payloads has been deployed, the vehicle can autonomously collect a new set of customer payloads from a “collection orbit,” enabling porkchop to reuse the vehicle several times over.
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Andrew Parsonson

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