Skyrora set to fire up rocket engine

2 August 2018 

Edinburgh-headquartered small satellite launch aspirant Skyrora has confirmed its plan for a 2021 orbital launch attempt from Scotland. The company announced at the recent Farnborough air show an agreement with Newquay airport in Cornwall to begin engine testing during the fourth quarter this year, and tells Geoconomy that further engine tests in the UK will follow.

According to business development executive Owain Hughes, Skyrora then plans further “in UK” engine tests over subsequent months”. A suborbital flight attempt should follow “in 2019”, and the 2021 flight of Skyrora’s three-starge orbital vehicle will go from a vertical launch site in Scotland – either in the Hebrides or Shetland Islands, or at the Sutherland facility being developed by Lockheed Martin and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Council with substantial UK Space Agency grant money.

Skyrora has an oxidiser centre in England, is working on the project with a “co-working centre” in Dnipro, Ukraine and is appealing for suppliers. The suborbital Skyrora 1 promises a 150kg payload capacity, and the three-stage Skyorora XL aims for 320kg to 600km polar orbits. In all stages, fuel is kerosene and a “green” hydrogen peroxide oxidiser “to minimise the impact on Earth’s atmosphere”. The third stage had completed two static test firings as of January 2017.

The company has plenty of nascent competition in the UK. Lockheed Martin is a “strategic investor in Los Angeles-headquartered RocketLab and intends to fly its Electron small launcher from Sutherland; Electron has already flown successfully to orbit from its New Zealand launch site.

Another UK company, Orbex, expects to fly from Sutherland by 2021. Its rocket, called Prime, promises novel technology to slash launcher mass and thus push 200kg satellites to 500km polar orbits – or even reach 1,250km Sun-synchronous orbits.

At the Farnborough air show, Orbex also revealed that it has attracted £30 million in funding – from Elecnor Deimos, UKSA, the European Space Agency, 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.

All of these vertical technology aspirants may be beaten to the prize of being first to launch from the UK, by Virgin Orbit. The California-based spin-off of the Virgin Galactic suborbital passenger flights operation signed a Farnborough air show deal to fly from Newquay. It expects to test-fly by early 2019 its LauncherOne rocket, which will be air-launched from a converted Boeing 747 that used to serve with Virgin Atlantic airlines. LauncherOne is designed to put 400kg into polar orbits.

And, while Sutherland is effectively the “official” UK government choice for a launch site, Cornwall’s ambitions to establish Newquay airport as a launch site and hub for engine testing and other technical activity are well-founded. Nearby Goonhilly Earth Station has been active in satellite and spacecraft communications and radio astronomy for more than 50 years, and upgrades are on the way. An £8.4 million ESA contract signed earlier this year will see Surrey Satelllite Technology ready Goonhilly to participate in tracking future deep space and lunar missions; the facility subsequent secured another £24 million investment.