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Space / SaxaVord in a good position but ‘space is hard’, warns agency boss

UK Space Agency chief executive Paul Bate in Shetland at the weekend. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

THE CHIEF executive of the UK Space Agency has expressed his confidence that SaxaVord could well be the UK spaceport that hosts the first European launch into polar orbit.

But while on a visit to Shetland at the weekend Paul Bate also warned that delays in developing cutting-edge space technology were not unusual and, in fact, they were a normal part of the process.

“The absolutely worst thing that could ever happen is to rush and the launch to fail,” he said when speaking to Shetland News.

“It is a step-by-step careful process; that is as true for the regulator as it is for the launch companies themselves. No launch company wants to have a catastrophic failure.”

Referring to unsuccessful launch of a rocket from Cornwall by Virgin Orbit in early January, Dr Bate said: “It is extremely difficult technology, space is hard, it really is. We have seen a number of high profile anomalies as it is called in the space world.”

But there were also positives: “We have already seen the successful regulation of a launch at Newquay [in Cornwall].

“Everything that the spaceport did went well, everything that the regulator did was successful, ultimately the satellites didn’t get into orbit, but having gone through all that process it makes it easier doing it the next time.”

And so the chief executive was in the isles to check on the progress at the largely privately funded SaxaVord Spaceport, the next candidate for the first launch.

Dr Bate oversees the government’s ambition for the UK to be the leading provider of small satellite launches in Europe by 2030, and SaxaVord plays a major part in reaching that target.

The agency is directly funding several projects at different prospective spaceports around the country, including Orbex at Sutherland spaceport and the Pathfinder project, led by Lockheed Martin and ABL, which is likely to take off from SaxaVord next year.

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SaxaVord spaceport with a completed launch stool visible. Photo: SaxaVord Spaceport

“This is cutting edge research and development. We are talking about a whole new approach of putting satellites into space – the micro launcher market – and it is a competitive market,” he said.

The agency chief added that the commercial potential and the demand for launching satellites into space was enormous and so far, “no one in mainland Europe has launched at all”.

“There were more satellites launched in the second half of 2022 than in the entire decade before that, mainly in America, but the point here is the demand,” he said.

“We have satellites manufacturers and operators around the world that have a massive interest in launching satellites (…), the demand is there and that is what the SaxaVord team is seeing.

“I think Frank [Strang] and his team have really done an excellent job in attracting Rocket Factory Augsburg, HyImpulse, Skyrora: a range of launch companies who have already signed up to launch from SaxaVord.

“That gives them the commercial confidence alongside the Pathfinder launch that we are funding directly with Lockheed Martin and ABL.”

He said SaxaVord’s geography at the northern tip of Britain’s most northerly islands was “phenomenal” for launches into the polar orbit, adding that the local skillset and engineering capabilities together with the entrepreneurial mindset at the spaceport were all working in Saxa Vord’s favour.

“There were more satellites launched in the second half of 2022 than in the entire decade before that.”

However, all the different locations around the UK have specific advantages, he was quick to add.

“But there are so many good things about the SaxaVord setup that it is no surprise that they in such good position to be launching when we get to next year,” Dr Bate said.

The necessary licence applications for SaxaVord to operate as a spaceport remain under consideration by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

However, a spaceport licence is not needed to host the maiden flight of a suborbital rocket from developer HyImpulse, due to the height the launch would reach.

The company has permission from the CAA to carry out one launch of the rocket from Unst during the time period of 1 December this year to 30 November 2024.

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