It’s a long time coming before it will be able to launch satellites from UK soil. The recent launch from Cornwall was unsuccessful, despite high hopes.
However, it is an ambitious new chapter in the UK’s long record for space exploration. As a country, we are good at making satellites, but we usually sent them abroad to launch.
While this approach can work very well, there are limits – and circumstances can change quickly. It was previously common practice to launch UK and European satellites on Russian rockets. The war in Ukraine means that this route is no longer available.
Launches from UK soil will enhance a space sector that is already worth more than £16 billion a year to the economy. They could also help avoid the need to transport UK satellites long distances, with the associated challenges of ensuring the security of the technology they contain.
During the Virgin Orbit mission on Monday 9 January, a rocket with satellites was carried up under the wing of an aircraft, which took off from the UK’s newly operational spaceport in Cornwall.
The plane flew towards the southwest coast of Ireland, where the rocket was launched from the wing and continued upwards towards space. Although the first stage (or part) of the rocket worked as expected, the second stage burned up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the loss of all nine satellites. Two of these, commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence, carried space weather and radiation monitors designed here at the University of Surrey’s Space Centre. We were really looking forward to seeing the data from the instruments, but it was not to be.
The launch is usually the most dangerous part of any mission. For a mature rocket system, the launch failure rate is usually only a few percent. For relatively new rocket systems, the failure rate is usually much higher. Such a failure cannot be considered highly unusual at this stage in the development of the Virgin Orbit rocket.
Flight data transmitted by the rocket will be carefully studied and analyzed, and the source of the problem will surely be found and fixed. The teams involved will learn from the experience, regroup and try again. Such efforts make spaceflight safer and more reliable.
While the cause of the failure is still under investigation and another launch attempt is expected, the unsuccessful result puts extra pressure on Virgin Orbit. However, what is needed is not just one-time success but long-term reliability.
It is great news that the UK is working to launch space missions from its own soil. The UK launched its first satellite, Ariel-1, on a US rocket back in 1962.
Unfortunately, just two months after launch, the US military conducted the massive nuclear test “Starfish Prime” high in the atmosphere. Radiation from the test killed off Ariel-1, along with other satellites. But this was a minor setback, since Ariel-1 started the UK’s successful satellite industry as we know it today.
Realizing the advantages of a sovereign launch capability, the United Kingdom developed its own rocket, Black Arrow, which broke out flawlessly from Australia in 1971. However, the government of the day canceled further production of this type rocket just launched because it was estimated. too expensive.
Launch leadership in western Europe was then given to France, which later developed the successful Ariane rocket system. Indeed, until recently, UK space policy could be summed up as “satellites but no launchers”.
Although it is often acceptable to use many foreign and commercial rockets, it means joining a queue of commercial and national customers. These addresses can be delayed or, in the worst cases, blocked.
In future, we could build a stockpile of the UK’s main satellites and have them ready for launch, knowing they can go into space as soon as needed. The new launch capability also strengthens the UK’s space ecosystem and eliminates the need for long-haul shipments of complex and sensitive equipment to other countries, which is expensive and can pose security challenges.
Rockets launched under the wing of an aircraft, like Virgin Orbit’s, fall into a category known as “horizontal” launch. These were led by an American air-launched rocket system called Pegasus, which first flew in 1990.
This way of launching saves fuel, because the rocket is carried the first 10km up by the aircraft. By changing the position and direction of the aircraft at launch, controllers can direct satellites into a variety of different orbital paths around the Earth. This provides a degree of flexibility not possible with fixed launch sites on the ground.
One disadvantage of horizontal launches is that the payload capacity – how much mass the rocket can carry into space – is limited.
In addition to the new launch base in the United Kingdom in Cornwall, other spaceports in Snowdonia, Prestwick and Loch Kilkenny will carry out horizontal launches once they are operational. These will compete with UK spaceports designed for vertical launches, where the rocket moves up from the ground. Sites with this capability are planned for Sutherland, the Western Isles and Shetland.
Once up and running, UK-based rockets will serve a growing local market, as their payload capacity will be well-matched to the “small sats” (satellites with masses up to a few hundred kg) that are the UK has a strong track record with them. record.
The first Spaceport Cornwall launch did not reach orbit. But the UK space industry has bounced back from difficulties before and can do so again. This gives us the confidence to look beyond this bump in the road and towards the next exciting chapter in the story.
This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Keith Ryden is the Director of Surrey Space Centre, which designed instruments carried on the LauncherOne rocket. It is funded by the UK’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the European Space Agency (Esa) to carry out work on space radiation and space weather instruments.
Professor Craig Underwood is Emeritus Professor of Space Engineering at the University of Surrey. The radiation monitor flown on LauncherOne was based on an instrument he designed, which was first flown on the UK’s TechDemoSat-1 (Technology Demonstration Satellite-1) mission in 2014. He has previously received funding from the Engineering Research Council and Physical Sciences and the UK Space Agency.