In a bid for rapid-fire relevance in the emerging private spaceplane industry, the UK government announced its intent to open a commercial passenger spaceport within four years. Eight airfields have been singled out as the British Isles’ answer to New Mexico's “Spaceport America” — one each in England and Wales, with the remaining six in Scotland.
The announcement comes alongside the release of a 321-page report from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), coinciding with the UK Farnborough International Airshow’s “Space Day.”
As the report notes, within the next two years both Virgin Galactic and Mojave, Calif.-based XCOR Aerospace plan to be operating regular flights to the edge of space or just below it. Both companies’ craft will takeoff and land horizontally, with a runway—as opposed to launching vertically and returning to earth vertically the old-fashioned way, with the help of big parachutes and vast stretches of ocean.
Private spaceplanes are also projected to soon be jostling for competition with rockets for launching satellites and cargo too.
Sweden, the report says, technically has Europe’s first commercial spaceport, in Kiruna above the Arctic Circle. But the report says they have so far “only [launched] sounding rockets.” (Spaceport Sweden of course might beg to differ with such offhanded dismissals, having been in operation since 2007, and now in the midst of their own PR campaign to become home to regular commercial spaceflight and spaceplane operations.)
Add to that Airbus’s recent drop tests of their own spaceplane design as well as the numerous commercial spaceflight and space cargo companies around the world who are also testing out spaceplanes and hybridized rocket-spaceplanes like Dream Chaser and it’s clear that the UK sees a bright future in the continued development of the spaceplane industry.
For the report, the CAA commissioned a market research study, which projected that a spaceplane airfield in the UK (or, should its referendum vote succeed in September, a newly-independent Scotland) would generate 120-150 paying spaceplane passengers per year in the spaceport’s first three years. Such traffic would then generate a projected US$19-$24 million per year in revenue.
The eight existing airfields (aerodromes) that will now be vying for upgrade to cosmodrome status are Stornoway Airport, RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Kinloss, RAF Leuchars, Campbeltown Airport, Glasgow Prestwick Airport (all in Scotland), Llanbedr Airport (in Wales), and Newquay Cornwall Airport (in England). The report does not specify how the ultimate site should be selected from among the eight candidate fields.
“The work published today has got the ball rolling,” said UK Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill in a prepared statement accompanying the report. “Now we want to work with others to take forward this exciting project and have Britain’s first spaceport up and running by 2018.”
Margo Anderson is the news manager at IEEE Spectrum. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in astrophysics.