Lift-off for new launch technology with UK Space Agency funding

Ian Annett (Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency)

THE UK Space Agency has announced £2.7 million for 13 early-stage technology projects across England, Scotland and Wales to support the growing satellite launch sector.

The UK is home to a thriving satellite manufacturing industry and is on track to become the first country in Europe to offer commercial launch services to small satellite manufacturers, from a range of spaceports offering both horizontal and vertical rocket launch capabilities.

Funding from the agency’s new Launch UK Technology Investment Programme will support teams from industry and universities to develop technology, products and services that will enhance the UK spaceflight supply chain, strengthen international competitiveness and catalyse further investment.

One project will recycle materials, including natural cork, to create thermal protection solutions for launcher propulsion systems and launch vehicles with a lower environmental impact, while another will develop launcher components out of lighter and more cost-effective metal composites, reducing the risk of creating space debris. Two further projects will follow next year.

Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said:

“Funding new science and technology developments is crucial to growing the UK space sector and catalysing further investment into our economy.

“While we look forward to marking a major milestone in UK launch capabilities with the upcoming launch from Spaceport Cornwall, projects such as these ensure we have growing pipeline of new technologies ready for lift-off to support our long-term ambitions.”

Launch services are worth a potential £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the next decade. The UK Space Agency is already delivering a programme of spaceflight projects, including Virgin Orbit’s first launch from Spaceport Cornwall, which will carry nine satellites into orbit early next year.  

Work is also underway on the construction of spaceports in Sutherland and Shetland, which will host vertical rocket launches from national and international launch providers. Further spaceports are in development at other locations in Scotland and Wales, with the potential to host a wide range of new and innovative launch technologies.

The projects in detail

Organisation: Space Prime, London

Funding: £17,000

Summary: Demonstrate the ability to recycle advanced engineering materials, including natural cork and thermoplastics, for use in high temperature launcher propulsion system applications and launch vehicle structures. This capability will provide the UK launch market with solutions for thermal protection systems that offer a low environmental impact and opportunities for use across the engineering industry.

Organisation: UKLSL, London

Funding: £26,000

Summary: Develop tools to streamline the process of applying for spaceflight licences under the 2021 Space Industry Regulations (SIR). The project should reduce time and costs associated with preparing and maintaining a licence application for any organisation wishing to operate launch systems from UK spaceports, and also satellite operators wishing to launch or operate satellites from the UK, making the UK a more attractive launch option for customers.

Organisation: Rocket Engineering, London

Funding: £50,000

Summary: Commercial feasibility study to examine how the UK’s nuclear space power programme, coordinated by the Nuclear Space Power (NSP) Working Group, could significantly widen and strengthen the use case for commercial spaceflight. This will enable the UK to deliver innovative space power services, leading to new launch contracts, a wider role for government and spaceports, and the potential to stimulate development of both launch and power services for commercial spaceflight and deep space exploration.

Organisation: European Astrotech, Westcott 

Funding: £54,000 

Summary: Development, building and qualification of a propellant loading cart (GSE) to service satellites with electric propulsion systems using xenon or krypton. This project expands on the firm’s established fuelling GSE to provide a similar, low-cost service to customers using satellites with electric propulsion.

Organisation: SmallSpark Space Systems, Cardiff

Funding: £76,000

Summary: Development and maturation of SmallSpark’s dual-firing mode propulsion system, the S4-NEWT-A2; which will form part of the architecture of its S4-SLV in-space logistics vehicle, and as a candidate system for upper-stage launch vehicles. The SLV seeks to provide logistics support for small satellites and aims to remove the need for manufacturers to develop dedicated propulsion, power and communications systems, by providing all of these onboard its reusable vehicle. A demo mission is slated for 2024 onboard one of the UK’s upcoming launch vehicles and is designed to service up to 60 satellites in a lifetime; with slot reservations available on the SmallSpark site.

Organisation: Lúnasa, Harwell

Funding: £216,000

Summary: Reach technology readiness level of Lúnasa’s reusable dual-stage spacecraft that will provide in-space logistics and infrastructure services for small satellites. The first-of-its-kind vehicle will fit the type of launch vehicles planned for use from UK spaceports, offering satellite operators opportunities to reach otherwise unattainable or fuel-exhaustive orbits. This project, funded in partnership with the Satellite Applications Catapult at Harwell will focus on de-risking the vehicle’s rendezvous proximity operations and docking capabilities.

Organisation: Magdrive, Harwell

Funding: £250,000

Summary: Next stage of development for the Magdrive kick-stage for launch, which will allow satellites launched from the UK to reach higher altitudes and new orbits, filling a supply chain gap and building resilience in the UK launch market. The kick-stage uses the Magdrive electric plasma thruster, which can future-proof against the risk of colliding with or causing space debris by rapidly burning.

Organisation: Shetland Space Centre, Scotland

Funding: £378,000

Summary: Project SkyReach will build and install a rocket launch rail for sub-orbital launches that can be used by different sounding rockets up to three tonnes gross lift-off weight, giving rocket launch providers in the UK the ability to test components of their vehicles in advance of orbital launch. SkyReach is planned for SaxaVord Spaceport in Scotland, due to begin launch activities early next year.

Organisation: HyImpulse, Shetland

Funding: £399,000

Summary: Create a Shetland-based motor test programme to implement design improvements for an advanced hybrid rocket, which will power the company’s sub-orbital and orbital launch vehicles. This is an important step towards the sub-orbital demonstration flight, which will be the most powerful European hybrid rocket ever flown to date. HyImpulse has also partnered with Cranfield University to analyse the liquid oxygen feed system.

Organisation: Gravitilab Aerospace Service Ltd, Norwich

Funding: £400,000

Summary: Plans to develop Gravitilab’s suborbital launch vehicle, ISAAC, from the advanced design and development stage through to design freeze and prototype build. The ISAAC launch vehicle aims to reach a max altitude of 250km with a payload mass of 20kg and a microgravity duration of around 300 seconds. In addition, this project also includes the acquisition and build of bespoke testing facilities.

Organisation: AltaRange Ltd, Scotland

Funding: £400,000

Summary: Plans for a simulated test of AltaRange’s telemetry, tracking and termination system, which will provide customers with range services – the processes performed by license providers to reduce risks to the public and property throughout launch events – at lower costs. AltaRange aims to catalyse investment into Scotland while prioritising and upskilling local suppliers to provide specialised system parts.

Organisation: Discover Space, Scotland  

Funding: £227,000 

Summary: Work with the University of Glasgow to develop the MachLab propulsion and space research laboratory, which will offer testing capabilities of earth-storable and cryogenic rocket engines of up to 10kN. The facility will offer ancillary testing capabilities to support a wide range of propulsion systems at various technology readiness levels. The project also includes designing the first UK propellant densification system and high-thrust test facilities for full scale launch vehicles.

Organisation: TISICS Metal Composites, Farnborough

Funding: £123,000 

Summary: Develop launcher components that demise during re-entry, eliminating space debris. TISICS lightweight tanks for launchers will enable a UK on-shore supply chain for high-value propulsion components. TISICS innovative manufacturing capability provides short lead time, low-cost, customer optimised solutions which will ensure lasting competitive advantage to the UK’s commercial spaceflight ambitions.

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