Page last updated at 02:02 GMT, Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Plans for UK satellite launcher

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Graphic explaining air-launched system

Two British companies are involved in discussions about developing a low-cost rocket capable of putting small satellites in orbit.

The idea is being promoted by SSTL, a firm in Guildford, Surrey, best known for its Earth observation spacecraft, in conjunction with Virgin Galactic.

It is 38 years since the UK government abandoned its successful satellite launcher programme, Black Arrow.

The new venture would be an entirely commercial exercise.

It would see a two-stage rocket launch from underneath a carrier aircraft.

The concept would look similar to the US Pegasus system, which uses a former airliner to lift a booster to 40,000ft, before releasing it to make its own way into orbit.

Pegasus launch (Nasa)
The UK concept would look similar to the US Pegasus system

"In 1971, we cancelled our launch-vehicle programme and have never gone back into it despite the fact that launch vehicles are an essential part of a healthy space industry," said Adam Baker from SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Limited).

"If we had our own launcher - something modest, not an enormous vehicle - for a reasonable price, we could service our own needs, both scientific and military, and we could also sell the service on the open market."

SSTL's ideas are being developed with Virgin Galactic, the company set up by billionaire Sir Richard Branson to take fare-paying passengers on short, weightless hops above the atmosphere.

Galactic has a carrier aeroplane, known as White Knight Two. Its primary function will be to lift the space tourists' rocket plane to its launch altitude.

But Galactic also wants to pursue other uses for the White Knight craft, and the idea of using it as a platform to release a British satellite launcher is an appealing one.

White Knight Two "Eve" in Mojave, California, United States
Virgin Galactic is looking for other uses for White Knight Two

"The Black Arrow decision was a tragedy," said Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic.

"It was based on a then civil service that thought there wasn't going to be a market. They were wrong."

SSTL and Virgin Galactic are hoping to get the backing of the UK science and innovation minister, Lord Drayson, in trying to see if there is interest in government in helping to fund a short feasibility study.

But any launcher system that did eventually emerge would be a commercial service, not a government operation.

Black Arrow launch (SPL)
Black Arrow: A British capability abandoned in the 1970s

SSTL envisages a vehicle capable of taking at least 50kg of payload into a polar orbit with a minimum altitude of 400km (248 miles), but engineers would aim to get significant additional performance.

"We'd be looking at a range from 50 to up to a maximum of 200kg because you'd want to do different sizes of satellite," said Mr Whitehorn.

Dr Baker added: "Hopefully we can do it for a lot less money than the current providers.

"It costs something like $5m-$10m at the moment to get one of our smaller satellites into space. What we are targeting is to see if we can do this for a million dollars.

"I think that's a very challenging number but I'm confident we can get very close to that - and if you could build the satellite itself for a couple of million dollars, all of a sudden you've got a very attractive package for well under $5m that lets your customers do something pretty capable in orbit."

Dr Baker is convinced all the expertise - in composite structures, guidance and avionics, propulsion, etc - exists in the UK to make it happen, but a study would have to prove the technical case and a viable business model.

Although a number of other groups in the UK have pursued a satellite launcher capability, the pedigree of SSTL and Virgin Galactic is likely to make potential investors sit up and take notice.

'Live' science

SSTL is perhaps best known for its Disaster Monitoring Constellation satellites which map the Earth at times of emergency at resolutions between 4m and 32m.

It also produced Giove-A, the first demonstration spacecraft for Europe's forthcoming sat-nav system, Galileo.

SSTL is owned by EADS Astrium, Europe's biggest space company. Astrium is the prime contractor on the mighty Ariane 5 rocket, which lofts some of the biggest satellites in the world.

Virgin Galactic has yet to start its space tourism service. It unveiled White Knight Two last year, and expects to roll out its tourist spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo, later this year.

Mr Whitehorn said the rocket plane also had great potential for doing microgravity research.

"You could take scientists up instead of space tourists and they could conduct their experiments 'live' in the period of microgravity you get on SpaceShipTwo, which is greater than you can get currently with zero-G aircraft.

"And of course you would have the scientists there in a way you couldn't with a sounding rocket, for example."

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