Virgin Orbit

UK-US sign agreement on space launch technology

Britain and America ease the path that will allow US companies to launch rockets from the UK.

By Jonathan Amos • bbcnews
June 17, 2020 4 minSource

Plans for a space launch capability on UK soil have passed a key hurdle.

Britain and America have signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement, which will make it much easier for US firms to bring rocket hardware into the UK.

Ordinarily, very tight restrictions apply to the movement of such equipment because of its dual-use nature.

The agreement is a therefore a must-have if US companies like Virgin Orbit and Lockheed Martin are to start launching satellites from Britain.

But this is not just about rockets; it's the whole component supply chain that should now open up.

The UK's Washington ambassador, Dame Karen Pierce, and US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation, Christopher Ford, signed the agreement on Tuesday.

Dame Karen said: "This agreement marks an exciting new area for UK-US space collaboration and represents a significant step towards US companies launching from UK spaceports."

Several other steps are also needed.

Although some primary legislation has gone through parliament, there is still a suite of new regulations that are needed to oversee the safe operation of spaceports.

A consultation on these regulations will go out for comment this summer.

In parallel, local planning consents are required. For the proposed spaceport in Sutherland in the North of Scotland, this is likely to be considered next week.

Virgin Orbit, which is owned by UK entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson but based in California, wants to run its launch system out of Newquay in Cornwall.

This is a horizontal, or air-launched, system. That is, the rocket is carried to altitude by a conventional jet plane before being released and ignited.

Virgin Orbit recently held a suppliers day in Cornwall for local companies that wanted to work with it.

The UK arm of the US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin would like to launch rockets vertically from the ground. It has its eye on the proposed spaceport at Sutherland.

And there are, of course, a number of indigenous British companies with similar plans - the likes of Orbex and Skyrora. They're developing and building their rockets onshore but they still need the government to put in place the necessary regulatory environment if they're to see their hardware fly.

Other potential UK spaceports include Shetland, the Western Isles, Glasgow Prestwick, Campbeltown, and Snowdonia.

Britain has a thriving space sector, producing both small and large satellites. At the moment, these spacecraft have to be shipped abroad to foreign launch centres if they're to get into orbit.

National policy is to fill in the gaps in sovereign capability. Launch is one of these gaps. A major new testing centre is also being built at the Harwell science campus in Oxfordshire.

When these missing elements are in place, the UK will then have the full competence to build, test and launch its own space hardware.

[email protected] and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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