High hopes

Sky­rora has put a rocket un­der Bri­tain’s lofty satel­lite am­bi­tions Michael Cog­ley

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

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

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