The UK is actively working on re-establishing itself as a leading space power. The UK’s space industry stats are not bad as they are since Scotland already produces more satellites than any other region in Europe, and the UK’s current share in the international space market is almost 6%. Still, the UK hopes to hold 10% of the global space market by 2030.
To this end, the UKSA actively funds spaceport construction and gives grants to local and foreign-originating rocket makers like Orbex Space. On the one hand, funding future launch operators is a wise decision. On the other hand, many aerospace experts believe that the UKSA’s choice of proteges could have been more careful. So, what’s the current spaceport construction progress, and what’s the catch with funding non-UK companies?
Out of six sites proposed for spaceport construction, Sutherland gets the most media attention. This vertical launch site at the A’ Mhòine Peninsula does have its benefits — remoteness from residential areas, water proximity for first rocket stage splashdown, favorable location for launching into polar orbits along the shortest trajectory, etc.
The spaceport already has investors and intersected launch providers. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the spaceport developer, already invested £9.8 million into the project. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority provided another five. Besides, the UKSA has given Orbex Space — one of the interested launch operators — a £5.5 million grant for launchpad construction. But, not all UK and Scottish experts have welcomed this financing round.
One of the reasons why not everyone is happy about the UKSA’s support of Orbex Space is its dubious reputation across the UK market. While technically, Orbex Space is registered as a UK company, the startup originated from Denmark. It was founded by Kristian Bengtson, who closely collaborated with Peter Madsen, one of the Copenhagen Suborbitals founders, currently serving a life sentence for murder. Later, the company re-emerged as Moonspike, hoping to carry out a moon mission. Moonpsike started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter but only secured £79,000 out of £600,000. After that, the company rebranded as a rocket maker and launch provider in the UK, taking its current name, Orbex Space.
In the United Kingdom, Orbex managed to secure more funding. First, BGF Ventures and Octopus Ventures invested £18 million to help Orbex with its Prime rocket development. Next, UKSA’s £5.5 million grant for Sutherland launchpad construction followed. One of the reasons why the local space community did not welcome this funding was that Catriona Francis, the UKSA employee securing this money, quit the space agency soon after the financing was finalized and got a position in Orbex. Notably, Orbex did not make any prior announcements about job openings.
Even if Orbex Space manages to complete its Prime Rocket development with 18 million from venture funds, it is still not clear if Sutherland Space Hub will reap any benefits from it. Aside from Orbex’s controversial reputation and investors’ unwillingness to grant this startup more funds, the spaceport faces other challenges.
One of the largest obstacles is the environmental opposition. To date, Sutherland developer HIE received over 400 objections to spaceport construction. Besides, the facility faces a judicial review initiated by Scotland’s richest landowner Anders Povlsen. Most environmental complaints argue that spaceport construction will destroy a large area of peat bogs, which are the natural sources of capturing carbon. Besides, rocket launches will result in additional carbon emissions, which doesn’t agree with the UK’s carbon-free initiatives.
On the other hand, most airspace companies today do work on minimizing carbon emissions, and Orbex Space is not an exception. A more pressing question is whether the company will be able to finish its rocket development. Unlike other non-UK businesses, including Virgin and Lockheed, the Danish startup did not prove its launch technology yet.
So, as the UK is finalizing its legal framework for rocket launches, the UKSA may also need to consider the companies it chooses to support. While there is nothing wrong with international collaboration, creating an independent space industry calls for a focus on supporting domestic launch operators rather than foreign ones.
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