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All About Space - - Spaceports -

Once, space launches were the pre­serve of na­tional gov­ern­ments, as the USA and USSR tus­sled over who had the big­gest rock­ets. Even Bri­tain got in on the act, with the Black Ar­row rocket, launched from Aus­tralia, and plac­ing a sin­gle satel­lite into or­bit.

Black Ar­row was canned for the same rea­son a lot of space ven­tures fail – costs. In 1966, NASA re­ceived some 4.41 per cent of the US fed­eral bud­get, but in 2017 its share was only 0.47 per cent, and it hasn’t been over 1 per cent since 1993. This reluc­tance on the part of gov­ern­ments to fund space ex­plo­ration has seen col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween coun­tries that led to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, and the rise of the pri­vate space launch com­pany.

There are some big play­ers in this field, headed by bil­lion­aires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Be­zos, while the Russian Space Agency is quite happy to ex­change tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for a trip into or­bit. These ven­tures, with their cam­era-pleas­ing tech­nol­ogy, tend to hog the lime­light, but there’s a lot more to the com­mer­cial space in­dus­try, and fig­ures from Bryce Space and Tech­nol­ogy show that, in 2017, $2.5 bil­lion was in­vested in com­mer­cial space start-ups by ven­ture cap­i­tal firms. There’s also a huge mar­ket for the data gath­ered by space­craft, par­tic­u­larly those look­ing down on the Earth.

As plans for space­ports are put for­ward all over the world, space­planes – re­us­able ve­hi­cles that can take off and land like a reg­u­lar air­plane, but also op­er­ate in the air­less zone at the top of our at­mos­phere – are a pop­u­lar idea. Far from fly­ing out for a quick jaunt around the Moon while sip­ping an agree­able pinot noir served by a hand­some stew­ard, these early tourism flights are likely to be sub­or­bital, not reach­ing high enough to en­ter or­bit, but go­ing much, much higher than any com­mer­cial air­craft and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing weight­less­ness for a few min­utes at the top of their curv­ing flight­path.

Space tourism com­pany Star­chaser In­dus­tries has a dif­fer­ent plan, how­ever. It is work­ing to­wards the launch of a re­us­able rocket ship with space for three pas­sen­gers. “We have a rocket called Nova 2. It’s a 12-me­tre rocket with a one-per­son cap­sule on the end,” says Star­chaser CEO Steve Ben­nett. “We’ve done some manned tests with the cap­sule – we threw it out the back of a plane at quite a high alti­tude – and the per­son on board de­ployed a steer­able parachute and brought the cap­sule back down safely. We’ve done that a few times, and the next stage is to launch the cap­sule on a rocket.” Ben­nett has pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence in this area, as Star­chaser holds the record for the big­gest suc­cess­ful rocket launch over the UK main­land.

“We’re go­ing to launch Nova 2 with a crash test dummy on board, not a real hu­man,” Ben­nett con­tin­ues, “but if that works then we’re very close to ac­tu­ally launch­ing peo­ple.”

This isn’t go­ing to hap­pen in the skies over Bri­tain, though. “We have a site in New Mex­ico where they’ve built the spaceport,” says Ben­nett, re­fer­ring to Spaceport Amer­ica in the United

States. “We’ve got 20 acres of land and will build a fa­cil­ity there for as­sem­bling and ser­vic­ing our rock­ets. The idea is to launch all the way to space from there.”

Spaceport Amer­ica also houses the space­planes of Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic, whose SpaceShipTwo is car­ried to high al­ti­tudes by its White Knight Two launch ve­hi­cle be­fore ig­nit­ing its rocket en­gine to climb into the up­per at­mos­phere for a sub­or­bital flight. Fol­low­ing the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo,

VSS En­ter­prise, in 2014, its successor, VSS Unity, is cur­rently un­der­go­ing flight test­ing.

Else­where in Amer­ica, the po­lit­i­cal land­scape is shift­ing in favour of com­mer­cial space­flight.

“If space launch ve­hi­cles were be­ing launched rou­tinely, the cost of ac­cess to space would come right down”

Steve Ben­nett

Pres­i­dent Trump, speak­ing at the be­gin­ning of March, praised SpaceX and Elon Musk for the suc­cess­ful launch of the Fal­con Heavy rocket, not­ing that: "They said it cost $80 mil­lion. If the govern­ment did it, the same thing would have cost prob­a­bly 40 or 50-times that amount of money."

An­other bil­lion­aire with his sights set on the stars is Jeff Be­zos, CEO of Ama­zon. His com­pany, Blue Ori­gin, favours a rocket-based cap­sule launch rather than a space­plane, and crewed tests of the New Shepard 3 ve­hi­cle are ex­pected later this year. The com­pany has its own spaceport, the Corn Ranch in western Texas, op­er­a­tional since 2006.

You don’t have to be a bil­lion­aire to con­sider launch­ing tourists into space, how­ever, as much it may help. Star­chaser’s Ben­nett was once a lab tech­ni­cian who built rock­ets in his spare time, while Re­ac­tion En­gines, a com­pany founded in 1989 by three former Rolls Royce rocket en­gi­neers, is work­ing on hy­per­sonic pas­sen­ger air­craft as well as its own space tourism pro­ject – the Sky­lon space­craft and SABRE en­gine. De­vel­oped from the HOTOL – a can­celled 1980s space­plane de­sign – and the RB545 en­gine con­cept, Re­ac­tion En­gines’ sin­gle-stage hy­brid jet/rocket en­gine tech­nol­ogy could carry 24 pas­sen­gers to or­bit, or 11 tonnes of

“You could travel from Lon­don to Syd­ney in 45 min­utes if you did it as a sub­or­bital flight” Steve Bennet

cargo to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, 45 per cent more than the ESA’s Au­to­mated Trans­fer Ve­hi­cle.

In Bri­tain, the Space In­dus­try Act 2018 re­ceived royal as­sent in March and paves the way for launches into space from UK soil as well as mod­ernising UK law to keep up with the rapid com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of the space in­dus­try, which av­er­aged a 6.5 per cent growth rate over the last decade and em­ploys 35,000 peo­ple across the country.

The lo­ca­tion of a Bri­tish spaceport is yet to be con­firmed, how­ever, with the govern­ment sup­port­ing the cre­ation of one at a ‘suit­able’ lo­ca­tion, but fail­ing to sug­gest where that lo­ca­tion might be.

Bri­tain isn’t bril­liantly placed for rocket launches – they tend to be car­ried out near the equa­tor, as this gives you an ex­tra speed boost thanks to the spin of the Earth, and from an east­erly coast to fly over the sea with the ro­ta­tion of the planet. The po­si­tion of the Kennedy Space Cen­ter on Amer­ica’s east coast means rock­ets fly out over the ocean. A rocket launch site in Es­sex would send its pay­loads over Europe, with po­ten­tially dis­as­trous con­se­quences in the event of a crash.

A Bri­tish spaceport is more likely to sup­port space­planes than rock­ets, but launches are not the only way a pri­vate com­pany can get in on the space tourism ac­tion. The need for deep-space track­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions will grow as the number of launches in­creases, and while at the mo­ment this is car­ried out by NASA’s Deep Space Net­work and the

Eu­ro­pean Space Agency, the pri­vate sec­tor has now got a foot in the door.

Goon­hilly Satel­lite Earth Sta­tion in Corn­wall got its first dish in 1962 to link with com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite Tel­star. This grew to over 60 dishes, and it was once the world’s largest satel­lite Earth sta­tion. Thanks to an £8.4 mil­lion in­vest­ment, Goon­hilly is to be up­graded to become the world’s first com­mer­cial deep-space com­mu­ni­ca­tions site, and will start by track­ing the ESA’s Mars Ex­press, which has been or­bit­ing the Red Planet since 2003.

And it’s not just Corn­wall that’s see­ing in­vest­ment in com­mer­cial space sci­ence. Next to the Na­tional Space Cen­tre in Le­ices­ter, a Space Park is be­ing built with £12.87 mil­lion of govern­ment fund­ing to com­bine Le­ices­ter Univer­sity teach­ing and re­search with com­mer­cial propo­si­tions, aim­ing to de­velop cut­ting-edge satel­lite tech­nol­ogy, and an­a­lyse the data the satel­lites send back.

“We ex­pect to have peo­ple like Air­bus and Lock­heed in there,” says Pro­fes­sor Martin Barstow, pro­fes­sor of as­tro­physics and space sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Le­ices­ter and di­rec­tor of the Le­ices­ter

In­sti­tute of Space and Earth Ob­ser­va­tion. “What we’re do­ing is en­gag­ing with larger com­pa­nies, and a lot of small com­pa­nies, about what their needs are, and co-de­sign­ing the fa­cil­i­ties with them.

“We won’t be launch­ing from Le­ices­ter, it’s not well lo­cated,” he con­tin­ues, “but we ex­pect the park to be pro­duc­ing pay­loads, medium-sized satel­lites built in large num­bers to ser­vice the new de­mands for Earth ob­ser­va­tion data, and for it to sup­ply the pipe­line for any new launch ser­vices that are lo­cated in the UK, as well as fur­ther afield. Our Earth ob­ser­va­tion ex­per­tise in par­tic­u­lar is fundamental to un­der­stand­ing where the growth op­por­tu­ni­ties are around ap­pli­ca­tions of space data, which is pre­dicted to be the largest po­ten­tial growth mar­ket from space in this country.”

Space data is ex­actly what the Goon­hilly pro­ject is hop­ing to cap­i­talise on too, and Barstow ex­plains that com­pa­nies in­vest­ing in such schemes may not be tra­di­tional ‘space com­pa­nies’. “Many com­pa­nies might want ac­cess to data, such as agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies us­ing Earth ob­ser­va­tion data,” he says. “Some of it may be around what we call sit­u­a­tional aware­ness – mon­i­tor­ing of dis­as­ters or un­de­sir­able things like fires, par­tic­u­larly in tracts of pris­tine for­est, or ac­tive de­for­esta­tion by peo­ple. You can use space data to im­prove the way peo­ple deal with these things.”

In this way, pri­vate space launches and data gath­er­ing are build­ing on the foun­da­tions laid by na­tional gov­ern­ments over the last 70 years. There’s still an enor­mous role for state-spon­sored launches, how­ever; they lit­er­ally help get things off the ground. “Get­ting stuff into space is very ex­pen­sive,” says Star­chaser’s Ben­nett. “If space launch ve­hi­cles were be­ing launched rou­tinely – daily – the cost of ac­cess to space would come right down. Space tourism is go­ing to help drive the costs down be­cause there are a lot of peo­ple who’d like to go. So with a mass mar­ket, the price would re­ally come down and space would re­ally open up.”

Barstow agrees. “Gov­ern­ments have an im­por­tant role [in space ex­plo­ration] be­cause some­times things are very high risk, at a level that of­ten pri­vate en­ter­prises can’t re­ally deal with,” he says. “Ev­ery­body talks about peo­ple like Elon Musk, and

“Gov­ern­ments have an im­por­tant role [in space ex­plo­ration] be­cause some­times things are very high risk”

Prof Martin Barstow

oth­ers who are do­ing great work in the US. Those pri­vate com­pa­nies wouldn’t have been able to do that with­out an aw­ful lot of govern­ment con­tracts along the way to get them run­ning. And the very de­lib­er­ate pol­icy within NASA to put the con­tracts out to pri­vate com­pa­nies in­stead of build­ing in-house in a way that de-risks the process for the com­pany has been ex­tremely suc­cess­ful. I hope we would do some­thing sim­i­lar in the UK.”

Ben­nett an­tic­i­pates one more ad­van­tage to a newly pri­va­tised space fu­ture: “It’s go­ing to trans­form the way we live on Earth,” he says. “You could travel from Lon­don to Syd­ney in 45 min­utes if you did it as a sub­or­bital flight. Once you get into space, you’re halfway to any­where – the Moon is full of re­sources, the Sun is brighter in space so so­lar pan­els become more ef­fi­cient. If you could set up so­lar pan­els in space and beam the en­ergy back to Earth that would be a very green way of gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity.”

Whether we end up with banks of or­bit­ing so­lar pan­els or not, pri­vate space­flight is here to stay, and while space tourism may look like a scheme to sep­a­rate rich peo­ple from their money, it plays an im­por­tant role in get­ting other things, such as Earth ob­ser­va­tion satel­lites or those so­lar ar­rays, off the ground… and it could change our lives sig­nif­i­cantly.

Star­chaser CEO Steve Ben­nett with the Nova 2 cap­sule that can carry a per­son to the edge of space on a rocket

Star­chaser’s Nova 1 rocket tak­ing off. It still holds the UK record for the big­gest suc­cess­ful rocket launch ever fired from the Bri­tish main­land

LAUNCH MeTHOD SpaceShipTwo is borne aloft by White Knight Two, a jet­pow­ered cargo plane, un­til it reaches 15km (9.3 miles) high, when its rocket mo­tor ig­nites, push­ing it to the edge of space. PAS­SeN­GerSWith di­men­sions and looks sim­i­lar to those of a pri­vate busi­ness jet, the Air­bus space­plane only fits four pas­sen­gers and a pilot. LAUNCH MeTHOD equipped with both jets and rock­ets, the space­plane can take off nor­mally and fly to an alti­tude of 12km (7.5 miles) be­fore ig­nit­ing its boost­ers and ris­ing to 100km (62 miles). PAS­SeN­GerSSpaceShipTwo is de­signed to carry six pas­sen­gers and two crew mem­bers. each seat costs $250,000, and there’s no firm idea of when they’ll start. Pas­sen­gers will feel weight­less for about five min­utes. SPACeSHIPTWOVir­gin Ga­lac­tic AIr­BUS De­FeNCe AND SPACe SPACe­PLANe Air­bus De­fence and Space LAND­INGAf­ter reach­ing max­i­mum alti­tude, SpaceShipTwo raises its wings up and glides, us­ing the at­mos­phere to slow it­self. It will take around 25 min­utes to re­turn to base. eN­GINe rock­etMo­torTwo is a hy­brid en­gine, mean­ing it uses both solid and liq­uid rocket fuels. The liq­uid fuel is vapourised and re­acts with the solid pro­pel­lent to pro­duce thrust. eN­GINeA meth­ane-oxy­gen rocket en­gine is used for the fi­nal push to space, while stan­dard jet en­gines take the ship to 12km (7.5 miles). This phase can last up to 45 min­utes. LAND­INGWith con­ven­tional jet en­gines on board, the space­plane doesn’t need to glide – it can de­cel­er­ate us­ing the at­mos­phere then fly nor­mally to any land­ing strip.

Spaceport Amer­ica, in the Jor­nada del Muerto desert, is the world's first pur­pose-built com­mer­cial spaceport

Vir­gin’sSpaceShipTwo its rocket ig­nitesen­gine and su­per­sonic goesdur­ing test­ing

Af­ter sep­a­ra­tion from the propul­sion mod­ule, Blue Ori­gin’s New Shepard crew cap­sule de­scends into the west Texas desert

Space Park Le­ices­ter is the UK's first na­tional space park

Sierra Nevada lands af­ter Cor­po­ra­tion’s free flight Dream Chasertests in 2017

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