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Space planes, rocket launches on UK's wish list

Posted: July 17, 2014

FARNBOROUGH, England -- The British government has announced plans to develop a spaceport, revealing candidate sites across the United Kingdom and fostering closer ties with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to revamp regulations and lure space tourism, and potentially small satellite launches, to Britain.

Artist's concept of a UK spaceport. Credit: UK Space Agency
The announcement Tuesday is the latest move by the government to expand Britain's space industry, which grew by 7.2 percent over the last two years, according to David Parker, head of the UK Space Agency.

Parker said the expansion made the UK space business an £11.3 billion, or about $19 billion, industry employing 34,300 people.

The government announced it would raise its contributions to the European Space Agency, including its involvement in the International Space Station, in 2012. Last year, the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne committed £60 million, or nearly $100 million, to an air-breathing rocket engine for the Skylon space plane being studied by Reaction Engines Ltd.

"What are the new opportunities in space? Commercial spaceflight, we believe, is one of those opportunities that could matter for the UK," Parker said. "In the years to come, we see the need for providing low-cost access to space, not only for our existing low-cost satellites but also the opportunity for the person on the street to go to space -- the opportunity for space tourism."

Aviation minister Robert Goodwill revealed eight candidates to host a future British spaceport:

  • Campbeltown Airport (Scotland)
  • Glasgow Prestwick Airport (Scotland)
  • Llanbedr Airport (Wales)
  • Newquay Cornwall Airport (England)
  • Kinloss Barracks (Scotland)
  • RAF Leuchars (Scotland)
  • RAF Lossiemouth (Scotland)
  • Stornorway Airport (Scotland)

The British Civil Aviation Authority did a study on potential spaceport locations, recommending the facility be placed at an existing airport rather than start a fresh development.

Goodwill said the site will need transport links by land sea and air, and they must be secluded from large population centers and busy air space. The spaceport will also need a 3,000-meter, or 10,000-foot, runway.

"These areas meet the criteria, but I could stress other areas in the UK may also do so," Goodwill said.

Six of the locations are in Scotland, and the spaceport initiative could change its plans based on the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in September, officials said.

The spaceport should be ready for operations by 2018, according to Goodwill.

The British government also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees regulations for commercial space launches, space tourism and spaceport operations in the United States.

The non-binding agreement establishes a foundation for cooperation in commercial space transportation between the FAA and UK authorities, said George Nield, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation.

The FAA will share information on its work in developing licensing regulations for space launches and passenger spaceflights, Nield said.

According to Nield, the memorandum will "serve as starting point if there's a need for the government to issue regulations in the future."

The FAA uses a licensing regime for commercial spaceflight instead of certification, which Nield says could stifle growth in the burgeoning industry. Regular commercial airlines must be certified by the FAA before flight operations.

"We're the first European country to take the challenge of space plane regulations seriously," Goodwill said of the British government initiative.

"Space planes are currently regulated as aircraft because they use lift to go through the atmosphere, but in the short term, what we're going to do is treat them as experimental aircraft, which is, of course, what they are," Goodwill said.

Officials want to attract future operators of suborbital space planes, such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Swiss Space Systems, for space tourism jaunts. Small satellite launchers could also operate from the British spaceport.

The Civil Aviation Authority's spaceport review included discussions with space tourism companies, according to Catherine Mealing-Jones, director of growth at the UK Space Agency.

Mealing-Jones said the UK wants to evaluate best practices in the industry, and she says the FAA is currently the global standard for developing and implementing commercial spaceflight regulations.

Executives from U.S.-based Virgin Galactic and XCOR attended Tuesday's announcement here.

Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR, said suborbital space planes are the natural first users of a British spaceport, calling them the "low-hanging fruit" before moving on to satellite launches.

"I think the seriousness which which the UK government took on this task was impressive and something to be commended," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic and XCOR are working on space planes to take paying passengers on brief flights to the edge of space, where tourists can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and enjoy dazzling views.

Goodwill participated in the announcement at the Farnborough International Airshow here the same day British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a shake-up in the government's cabinet.

Former space minister David Willetts was replaced by Greg Clark in the government's reshuffle.

Andy Green, president of the British trade association UKspace, lauded the work of Willetts in his four-year tenure. The period saw the establishment of a new European Space Agency facility in Harwell, England, and an increase in spending on space programs by the British government.

"It's a testament that the space industry in Britain is once again competent and flourishing," Goodwill said.

ESA also announced the first professional British astronaut, Tim Peake, will fly to the International Space Station on a six-month flight beginning in late 2015.

"We're beginning to move in front of the curve," Green said. "We're beginning to dream the dream, and I think that's what matters in thinking about what the next steps are for all of us."

Lockheed Martin plans to open a space technology office at the UK Space Gateway in Harwell, the company said Tuesday.

"We want the UK to be at the forefront of the next stage of spaceflight," Goodwill said.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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