Space Sunday: British space ports and some female space firsts

The United Kingdom is to gain a vertical launch space port in what might at first appear to be one of the most unlikely of locations: the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, Scotland, one of the most northerly points in the UK’s mainland.

The announcement that the UK Space Agency has selected the location, sitting between the Scottish coastal villages of Tongue and Durness, was made on July 16th, 2018. The new facility will be kick-started by a new £2 million fund established to boost vertical space port development across Britain.  In addition, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a Scottish government agency, will be given £2.5m from the UK government to develop the space port which could be up and running by the early 2020s.

In all, the HIE claims to have secured a total of £17.3m to develop the facility: £10 million through the HIE itself, and the remainder being put forward by “other sources”. It was selected over proposed sites at Unst in Shetland, and North Uist in the Western Isles.

The UK’s first vertical launch facilities will be developed on the north coast of Scotland and serve the polar orbit market. Credit: The Guardian

Given that most launch facilities try to be as close to the equator as possible in order to gain and additional “boost” from the Earth’s rotational speed of 1,600 km/h when launching a space vehicle, siting a space port so far north might at first sound odd. However, the facilities to be built at A’Mhoine, which will initially employ around 40 people on-site and provide supply chain jobs for up to 400 more, is not designed to place payloads in near-equatorial orbits. Instead, it will offer a means to reach the highly sought-after polar orbit, so-called because the payload circles the Earth pole-to-pole.

This is an increasingly valuable orbital path as a payload in such an orbit can, over time, pass over just about every point on the surface of the Earth, thanks to both its orbit and the Earth’s own rotation. Thus, it’s an ideal orbit in which to place Earth observing satellites, weather satellites, climate observing satellites – even communications relays.

A high northern latitude launch centre is also ideal for placing satellites in Sun-synchronous orbits, which allow their solar panels to remain in permanent sunlight. Such orbits are popular again with weather and climate observing payloads and also spy and ELINT (electronic intelligence) gathering satellites.

The primary launch vehicle for use at the new site has already been selected. It will be provided by a consortium of US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin and start-up business Orbex. They plan to use the New Zealand developed Electron rocket, designed by Rocket Labs.

Newquay Airport, Cornwall, could become one of a number of horizontal launch centres in the UK, and has announced a strategic partnership with Virgin Orbit to fly 747 / LauncherOne missions out of the airport, possibly starting in 2021. Credit: Cornwall Council

In addition, the UK government is also looking to develop so-called “horizontal spaceplane operations” centres across the UK. One of the prime contenders for this type of operation is “Spaceport Cornwall”, focused on Newquay Airport. Coinciding with the Scottish launch facility announcement, it was confirmed by Cornwall Council, operators of the airport, that Virgin Orbit and the airport’s management had entered into a strategic partnership which could see the airport become a base of operations for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne / 747 carrier aircraft combination.

If all goes according to plan, the first 747 / LauncherOne flight from UK soil could take place in 2021. The agreement itself marks the second such arrangement Virgin Orbit has entered into with a European country – as I reported in my previous Space Sunday update, the company has also entered into an agreement with the Taranto-Grottaglie airport in southern Italy to operate flights from that airport, alongside possible tourist flights by Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Orbit could be operating its LauncherOne rocket at carrier 747 out of Newquay Airport, Cornwall, from 2021. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The UK is a leading developer and constructor of satellites and other space systems, both on its own, through the likes of Surrey Satellite Technology, BAE Systems, ADS, and so on, and through the European Space Agency.

Name Sought for ExoMars Rover

The UK is the prime contractor for the European Mars rover, due to lift-off for the Red Planet in 2020 and set to commence operations there in 2021. A part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars campaign, the rover is within a formal name. So, to correct this, on July 20th, 2018, the UK Space Agency launched a public competition to give the rover a name.

Entries are open to all EU citizens and limited to one entry per person. Entrants must offer a name for the rover and give a 150-word explanation of why they think it should be used. Entries must be submitted no later than 23:59pm BST on October 10th, 2018, and the winner and three guests will be able to tour the Airbus facility where the rover is being built.

The UK is the second largest European contributor to the ExoMars mission, behind Italy, having invested around £270 million into the programme. Airbus Defence and Space UK is leading the build of the rover, with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, developing the rover’s major “eyes”, a high-resolution 3D camera which will be used to look at the terrain and rocks to try to detect signs of life. In addition, Leicester University and UK-based Teledyne e2v are involved in developing the Raman Spectrometer on the rover, while the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will be responsible for processing the data it delivers.

British astronaut Tim Peake announces the launch of the competition to name the ExoMars rover, with a full-scale mock-up behind him. Credit:

Those wishing to enter the competition to name the rover can do so via the link above. The full terms and conditions for the project are available here. However, for those so inclined, “Marsy McMarsface” has already been ruled out as an option! (If you don’t get the reference see here – and I should probably note that Boaty McBoatface will sail with the Sir David Attenborough as well!)

Women in Space

On the occasion of this weekend marking the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I was one of a number of people tweeted about firsts for women in space. There have been quite a few over the decades, and I thought that in response to the Tweet, I’d highlight a handful here:

  • Valentina Tereshkova: the first woman in space, and the sixth Russian to orbit the Earth, piloting the Vostok 6 mission in June 1963.
  • Sally Ride: the first U.S. woman in space, flying on shuttle mission STS-7 in 1983.  She was also the third woman in space after Valentina Tereshkova Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew on the Soyuz T-7 mission in 1982.
  • Svetlana Savitskaya:
    • First female space walker, Soyuz T-12, July 1984.
    • First Russian woman to complete two space missions, Soyuz T-7 and Soyuz T-12.
  • Kathryn Sullivan: first American woman to walk in space, STS-41G, October 1984.
  • Helen Sharman:
    • First Briton to fly in space, Soyuz TM-12 in 1991.
    • First Briton to visit the Mir space station.
    • First woman to visit the Mir space station.
  • Mae Jemison: first African-American woman to travel to space, STS-47, 1992.
  • Sunita Williams; first person to run a marathon in space, Expedition 15, 2007.
  • Yi So-yeon: first South Korean to fly in space, Soyuz TMA-12, 2008.
  • Peggy Whitson holds numerous records for women:
    • The first woman to command the International Space Station, starting in April 2008 as part of Expedition 16.
    • The first woman to be the NASA Chief of the Astronaut Office.
    • First woman to command the space station twice with Expedition 16 and Expedition 51 in 2016.
    • First to command the ISS on consecutive flights into space.
    • Oldest woman to fly in space (56 at the time of her 2016 flight, 57 at the time of her return to Earth).
    • The most total time in space for any US astronaut at this point in time: 665 days, 22 hours and 22 minutes in orbit across three missions

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it a list of “first” firsts (outside of the likes of Helen Sharman, Sunita Williams and Yi So-yeon)- but women are increasingly well represented in space endeavours both as astronauts and in roles on the ground – around 50% of the total mission team for the Curiosity rover are women, for example. And women certainly played a crucial role in getting humans into space, and in the Apollo programme itself!

A Look at the Current Martian Dust Storm from Orbit

Mars is approaching opposition, the time at which it is one the same “side” of the Sun relative to Earth, and therefore usually an ideal subject for study from Earth-based telescopes. However, the current world-spanning dust storm the planet is experiencing may well spoil the opportunity this time around (opposition occurs roughly every 26 months). Video put out by NASA on July 19th, 2018, demonstrates why, by comparing two animations of Mars made using the Mars Colour Imager (MARCI) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which maps the entire planet in mid-afternoon, and which compare images of the Planet captured on May 28th, 2018 before the storm arose, and on July 1st, 2018.


3 thoughts on “Space Sunday: British space ports and some female space firsts

  1. Yaa! The establishment of a UK space port is a reflection of a long-term trend I have noticed. The US is in the process of abdicating its role in both space development and scientific progress in general. So, I applaud this expansion of space infrastructure to the UK.

    In the US there is an increasing lack of belief in scientific facts while substituting mythical conjectures along with a hostile attitude toward training in scientific methods. The US is not going to have the trained people needed both for space activities and general scientific achievements in the future.

    So, I’m glad to see the UK and Europe in general moving in to fill this vacuum!


    1. The UK’s role in the “space industry” has tended to be largely ignored in the past by the UK government. It is really only due to the relentless lobbying by space advocacy groups, the private sector, educational institutions (many UK universities play major roles in space related R&D) since the early 1990s through the mid 2000s that the UK government really started to be more proactive where space related technologies and opportunities are concerned. However, thanks to Brexit, the UK’s role in European space activities has been thrown somewhat into question.

      To explain: on the one hand, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU are separate entities. A country does not have to be in one (the EU) to participate in the other (ESA). But on the other, the EU provides the lion’s share of ESA’s funding – 5.75 billion Euros (US $7.73 billion) in 2017. ESA-related contracts therefore tend to be awarded on the basis of that funding by contribution. For example, Germany and France provide 22.7% apiece to the EU’s funding for ESA, and they are therefore ESA’s largest contractors / suppliers. The UK provides 8%, behind Italy at 14.6%. It’s a small but significant amount that ensures the UK plays a pretty central role in ESA – and has a say in overall European space projects.

      In leaving the EU, the UK’s role in ESA as an EU member state will be eliminated. While the UK will still be an ESA member, there is a good chance we’ll have to renegotiate our involvement in all current EU / ESA projects (as is already being consider with the massive Galileo GPS network and the Copernicus Earth Observation network), and with future ESA projects. This effectively reduces the UK’s role in EU/ESA projects to what is called “third-party” involvement.

      On top of this, there’s also the question mark over how much the UK government will want to contribute directly to ESA, post-Brexit given the bias towards contracts going to EU members – and how much we’ll be allowed to contribute. Who is to say, for example, that Germany, France, Italy, Brussels, et al won’t between them opt to fill most of the void left by the loss of the UK’s contribution, thereby limiting how much the UK is able to to contribute to ESA and be involved in its projects?.

      So yes, the space ports news is good, but it also underlines some of the worries that have come about as a result of the idiocy called “Brexit”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the information both on UK space accomplishment and what will be caused by Brexit.

        While I agree on the idiocy of Brexit from this side of the pond I would say that pales in comparison with how the corporate Democratic Party establishment helped elect that orange haired buffoon.

        One thing Trump’s visit to London showed is that you’ll are more creative at insults. I also wonder if I were queen whether a convenient cold wouldn’t be appropriate. (Yes, I realize there are legal obligations for that not to happen. But I can dream with a smile on my face.)


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