Skyrora has put a rocket under Britain’s lofty satellite ambitions Michael Cogley
In May, eight lorries carrying a team of Skyrora engineers and a 32ft rocket headed up the A9 towards the “middle of nowhere in Scotland”. There, they performed what would be the first ground rocket test to take place in the UK in half a century. “It was the first significant step towards reaching space from our own soil and we’re proud to have taken that step,” says Volodymyr Levykin, the company’s founder, on a Zoom call.
The tied-down launch in Kildermorie Estate, near Alness in the Highlands, was an example of how Britain could fulfil its ambition in getting a slice of the lucrative space industry, estimated to be worth £400bn by 2030.
Interest in space is at its highest point in decades. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launches attract tens of millions of viewers, while Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already sold 600 tickets to space tourists hoping to reach orbit on SpaceShipTwo.
The Government, meanwhile, this month splashed out £400m for a stake in broadband satellite firm OneWeb.
With a launch facility in the Shetland Islands, Skyrora is one company looking to take advantage of the groundswell in interest.
“Our ambition is to actually be the British SpaceX,” Levykin says. “Not so much in terms of the launch vehicles themselves, but more in the factor of inspiration for the people of the UK.”
He has grand plans to expand in the UK. The Ukrainian native’s background is in corporate IT roles, including, somewhat unusually for a space executive, at online dating company OkCupid.
“At the moment we’re a transport company, offering taxis,” Volodymyr says of his satellite propulsion business, which is looking at the Shetlands as a permanent home for future launches. “We’re going to need to scale up our people 10 times over.
We need to get from 30 staff to 300 in the following years and start the mass production of our vehicles here.”
Time is of the essence for Skyrora, as Levykin says there can only be “one winner” in the European space race to compete with Musk.
Speed is central to everything the company does, so much so that government grant application processes have been too slow to keep up with its research and development, it claims. The satellite propulsion company has a line-up of rockets that range from suborbital probes like the Skylark Micro to the Skyrora XL, which is primed to drop payloads into space. The small satellite market is tipped to go through enormous growth. The sector was estimated to be worth about $3.6bn (£2.7bn) in 2018, according to figures from data analytics company Valuates Reports. However, that figure is expected to reach $15.7bn by 2026.
Rapid developments in space technology have made the use of smaller satellites more economical. In addition, demand for internet that satellites services can provide is continuing to surge.
For Skyrora, the focus is very much on this smaller market. “Other companies like SpaceX operate like a bus, and bus services are only profitable for the business owner if they can fill the whole bus,” Levykin says. “For passengers the tickets are cheaper, but the passengers need to get to the bus stop and wait and can only get out at certain locations. We use a different class of rocket – it’s much smaller, we’re more like a taxi. So we can launch from basically anywhere you want and bring your satellite to the exact location in orbit.”
The company claims the ability to deliver satellites into such specific orbits is not available to the majority of the market. Demand is evidenced by the fact that Skyrora has received 30 letters of intent from customers despite having yet to launch a rocket into orbit. In 2023, Skyrora is expected to reach orbit for the first time. At which point, it will advance towards being a service company, rather than a research and development business.
“Unfortunately for the rocket business you cannot generate revenue unless you ask for prepayments because you have to build up credibility,” Levykin says. “But after 2024 we’re expecting to take in revenue and reach an operational break-even point. By 2026 we want to start reaching 16 launches a year.”
Britain’s space industry has annual revenues of about £15bn, according to a government study carried out by consultancy group London Economics. More than half the total comes from broadcasting, with communications and navigation making up most of the rest. Defence and earth observation accounts for 8pc and 3pc of the industry’s revenue. Britain has a roughly 5pc slice of the world’s space economy, but has ambitions to control a tenth of it by 2030. To do so will involve filling thousands of technical roles in Britain, which may pose a problem.
“It would be easy to say the talent pool for launch isn’t really there,” explains Jack James Marlow, Skyrora’s head of engineering. “The UK has had a knowledge gap since we discontinued the Black Arrow programme.” Black Arrow was a state-backed mission from the 1960s. A team of engineers from the Royal Aircraft Establishment and Westland Aircraft developed a rocket that orbited an experimental satellite – named Prospero – in 1971. However, it was sunk by cost implications.
Britain is believed to be the only country to have successfully developed and then abandoned the ability to launch satellites. That decision has left companies like Skyrora on the hunt for engineering talent. Last week Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, announced a consultation on the proposed regulatory changes for the licensing of new spacecrafts and spaceports.
Shapps, who described the move as a “giant leap for space flight”, revealed that the regulation would now lie with the Civil Aviation Authority rather than the UK Space Agency. “Getting the rules in place for space launches from UK territory may seem like one small step, but it paves the way for a giant leap in the development of our space sector,” he said.
For Skyrora however, many government actions have been painfully slow. Initial regulations were introduced through the Space Industry Act 2018. Since then continuous delays have caused uncertainty for British rocket firms.
“Everybody was promised the second part of the regulations within a few months of the act,” Levykin says. “You need that because it outlines the kind of requirements you need to follow in order to get a licence for your vehicles. It has been delayed dramatically, first it was the excuse of Brexit, now it is the excuse of Covid-19.” The Ukrainian executive said that regulation of the sector should have been given to the CAA “from day one”.
The company has spent more than £10m and has an additional £20m in reserve, which should be enough to keep it going for the next two years. However, more funds are needed with the overall cost of Skyrora’s bid to begin operations as a satellite launch company totalling £120m.
Levykin says, the company needs government funding. The Skyrora chief concedes it would have been a lot easier to open in the US, but wanted to build it closer to home.
“I moved to you and that is my home, way before this space project,” he says. “I would like to do something for my country. I’m based in Edinburgh and I love Edinburgh.”
Should he be successful, the Shetland islands could become the home of Britain’s own space exploration fleet.
Skyrora has successfully completed the first ground rocket test in the UK in 50 years while also establishing a launch facility at Fethaland Peninsula on Mainland Shetland