26 July 2018
Has Europe fallen in love with the idea of small launchers? Just a week after a busy Farnborough air show – where the UK Space Agency announced that Scotland will host vertical flights from as early as 2020 and Cornwall lined up Virgin Orbit to fly its under-development air-launched system from Newquay airport from 2021 – we learn that it is “technically and financial viable” to launch from the Azores islands.
According to Portuguese subsidiary of Spanish high-tech engineering group Elecnor Deimos, a spaceport at Malbusca, on the North Atlantic archipelago’s southernmost island of Santa Maria, would suit launchers capable of putting satellites up to 200kg into 500km orbits, the sort of flight paths suitable for Earth observing spacecraft. And a Deimos study – commissioned by the European Space Agency – concluded that Malbusca not only provides access to the “most commercially attractive orbits for these satellites” but also offers advantages in avoiding air and maritime traffic while having “better climate conditions” than “other possible locations in Europe”. And, says Deimos, the Portuguese-controlled island “meets the security conditions necessary for critical operations”.
An Azores spaceport, it adds, has the advantage of proximity over ESA’s launch centre in Kourou, French Guiana, which hosts the much larger Ariane, Soyuz and Vega vehicles. While Kourou has the security advantages of being technically on French soil, and the geographic advantage of being very near the equator, it is 7,000km from Paris; the Azores are less than 1,500km from continental Europe.
Whether any concrete plans follow to establish an Azores launch base remains to be seen, but Deimos echoes European Commission emphasis on access to space as a strategically critical capability. A spaceport, says Deimos, would make Portugal “one of the eight privileged countries in the world to have access to space”. Says Elecnor Deimos Portugal chief executive Nuno Ávila: “Europe will soon have small launchers to continue competing with the USA and China. These launchers require a launch base in Europe, which is something that every country wants given the sovereignty it implies to have access to space.”
As for technology, Elecnor Deimos has some momentum. It is a “strategic investor” in Orbex, the UK- and Denmark-based company developing what it bills as a revolutionary microlauncher designed to put small satellites into polar orbits. At Farnborough, Orbex was revealed as recipient of a £5.5 million UK Space Agency grant, which it will use to build a factory in Scotland to have access to the UK spaceport set to open from 2020 in Sutherland, at the northernmost tip of the British mainland.
Orbex also revealed that it has attracted £30 million in funding – from Deimos, UKSA, ESA, Europe’s Horizon 2020 programme and two of the continent’s venture capital funds, Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds. Former ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain chairs the advisory board; chief commercial officer is Jan Skolmli, who used to be head of launch at small satellites specialist Surrey Satellite Technology.
Its rocket, called Prime, promises to meet that 200kg/500km performance target but could push satellites to sun-synchronous or polar orbits as high as 1,250km. The company boasts a novel architecture which slashes launcher mass by 30%, as well as a vastly simplified system for pumping its liquid oxygen and bio-propane fuel – arranged in concentric tanks rather than stacked, to take advantage of the fact that propane doesn’t freeze at cryogenic temperatures. All of that will come in a package less than 20m long, which Ávila describes as ideal for being able to from simpler infrastructures with greater operating flexibility and a lower impact on the launch zone, “all together with competitive prices”.
Orbex expects to fly in 2021, but as plans stand it won’t inaugurate the Sutherland spaceport in Scotland. That honour should go to its nearest rival, the Electron from Los Angeles-based RocketLab, in which Lockheed Martin is an investor. UKSA has granted Lockheed £23.5 million to establish the Sutherland spaceport, which it will operate as a concessionaire from the local Highlands and Islands Enterprise Council, which will own the infrastructure. That grant will also support technology development, including of a cubesat dispenser being engineered by Moog in Reading, west of London.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise has a £2.5 million UKSA grant and has approved a further £9.8 million of its own funding for the project. Separately, in another Farnborough air show story, Lockheed has agreed to work with the Shetland Islands – north of Sutherland – to build a satellite tracking and communication facility. HIE chief executive Charlotte Wright says: “We’re very clear that we want to work with others to ensure the benefits of a spaceport in the Highlands and Islands are not confined to Sutherland, but extend well beyond. A central part of our approach as we develop this project will be to explore opportunities throughout our region.”
At the other end of the British isles, Cornwall is hoping Virgin Orbit can put it on the launch map. The company’s LauncherOne rocket is expected to make its first test flight by early 2019, air-launched from a converted Virgin Atlantic 747 jumbo jet. Newquay airport offers excellent geography for such operations, with take-off directly over the sea to the west and clear ocean for a turn north to drop and launch. The rocket, powered by Virgin’s own Newton engines, is being designed to put 400kg into polar orbits.
Air launch has the at least theoretical advantage over vertical launch of using the carrier aircraft as a first stage for the rocket, to carry it through the thickest part of the atmosphere before ignition. A rocket engine designed to fly from around 40,000ft, a typical air-launch altitude, can be designed to operate more efficiently than one which needs to fly through the thickest layer of atmosphere. The rocket also starts with the aircraft’s forward speed.
Vertical launch proponents note, though, that much of the rocket’s performance is “wasted” travelling horizontally, altitude is lost in the drop and the vehicle has to carry wings or steering fins to turn upwards. And, rocket size is limited to what can be carried aloft by an aircraft. The net gain may be small – but, as Virgin Orbit looks set to demonstrate in Cornwall, the launch system is relatively easy to transport. Ground infrastructure for rocket fueling and payload integration is needed, but any suitable runway can host flights.
As for ESA, it is considering a range of microlauncher options. Earlier this year it chose five feasibility studies to consider dedicated launch services for small satellites, including Deimos in Portugal. The others represent a wide range of technical options.
ArianeGroup – the Airbus-Safran joint venture which supplies the Ariane 5 heavy launcher and is developing Ariane 6 – proposes a three-stage vehicle. MT Aerospace of Germany is working on four concepts. These include two- and three-stage vertical launchers, and a pair of air-launched concepts. One, called Daneo, would be carried by a modified Dassault Falcon 2000 business jet. The other is Bloostar – which takes air-launch to its logical extreme by carrying the rocket to 20km altitude with a helium balloon before ignition in near-vacuum conditions.
In Italy, Vega prime contractor ELV proposes two vertical launch configurations built on solid- and liquid-fuel stages being devised for the upcoming Vega-C and –E launchers.
And, Spanish start-up PLD Space proposes Arion 2, a vertical launcher which shares components with its Arion suborbital demonstrators; power is liquid oxygen-kerosene.