A Spaceport For Britain – Launching From The United Kingdom.
Edited By Griffith Ingram
Slide 1 Several countries around the world such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Russia,
Introduction Singapore, and South Korea are gearing up for the prophesised flood of orbital and suborbital
launch vehicles that are to come from the new era of private enterprise spaceflight and space
tourism, known as alt.space or newspace.
Slide 2 Round the world numerous Spaceports are coming online, these are fully-commercial launchsites.
Slide 3 In the USA, several new Spaceports have appeared, fuelled by tax breaks available to set up
Corn Ranch is a spaceport located in Van Horn, Texas. The 165,000-acre land parcel was
purchased by Internet billionaire Jeff Bezos. The first flight test took place on November 2006. It is
foreseen that commercial touristic flights could start as early as 2010.
The Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island Alaska, is a commercial rocket launch facility for
sub-orbital and orbital space launch vehicles owned and operated by the Alaska Aerospace
Development Corporation, a public corporation.
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is a commercial space launch facility located at the
southern tip of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.
The spaceport has been developed, with a combination of federal, state and private sector
funding, by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA).
The first rocket to be launched from there was on 16 December 2006
The Mojave Airport & Spaceport California, is the first facility to be licensed in the States for
horizontal launches of reusable spacecraft, being certified as a spaceport by the Federal Aviation
Administration on June 17, 2004. It is the only spaceport from which there have been privately-
funded human spaceflights.
Mojave Spaceport has been a test site for several teams in the Ansari X Prize, most notably
SpaceShipOne, which conducted the first privately funded human sub-orbital flight on June 21,
2004. Other groups based at the Mojave Spaceport include XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space
Systems, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Interorbital Systems.
Oklahoma Spaceport is a newly authorized spaceport near Burns Flat, Oklahoma. It is expected
to be a launch site for space tourism flights as early as 2008. The Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) granted a license to the site in June 2006 to the Oklahoma Space Industry Development
Authority (OSIDA) to "oversee the takeoff and landing of suborbital, reusable launch vehicles".
Spaceport America is a commercial spaceport currently being developed in the desert of Sierra
County, New Mexico. The site is 45 miles (72 km) north of Las Cruces, near the perimeter of the
White Sands Missile Range.
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to launch its first flight from the spaceport in 2009.
Slide 4 As well as the USA, other spaceports are appearing around the world:
Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Russia's Baikonur spaceport. Kiruna, Sweden is also planning
to use Esrange as a spaceport, flying virgin galactic SS2 flights in 2012.
Virginia-based Space Adventures is involved in deals for the development of spaceports in
Singapore and Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates.
Australia should have spaceports but doesn’t: In one of the biggest political blunders since the
underfunding of Black Arrow, the Australian government drew up space legislation that is so
beurocratic and unworkable that it’s killed any chance of a space industry in Aus stone dead.
Woomera is closed for business.
Slide 5 One other notable exception in the Spaceport listings is Britain.
Why should other countries have all the fun, would it be possible to start launching satellites from
the UK? What are the technical, geographical, and legislative hurdles to be overcome?
Slide 6, Slide 7, First thought on a place to build a spaceport might be to look at lobbing rockets from the most
& Slide 8 Space-friendly area of the UK.
Discounting Charterhouse on the grounds that the neighbours would complain, the next most
Space-friendly area of the UK… is the Isle of Man!
As Duncan Law-Green points out:
The Manx government has done a lot to encourage the development of
the space industry, including setting a zero rate of corporate income tax for
space-related activities. Inmarsat, Boeing, Sea Launch, Loral and SES Global
(the world’s largest satellite operator) all have operations on the island. The Manx government
have appointed a Director of Space Commerce specifically to support the growth of the space
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We think that an ex UKSEDS member, or his dad, have influence in the Manx government.
Sadly, both the sea around the Isle of Man, and the airspace above it, are very busy.
The island’s rather land-locked: there’s no clear shot across open ocean to drop spent stages
into, or for debris to fall into if it all goes wrong.
Slide 9 The same applies to firing east from the UK mainland to chase the International Space Station in
its highly inclined orbit; you’d end up dropping spent stages on Europe. They may have dropped
lots of V2’s on us, but unsportingly we’re not allowed to reciprocate.
Britain is way too far from the equator to get into equatorial orbits such as geosynchronous orbit.
Slide 10 If you want to fire east, the best bet is to head south to the appropriately-named Ascension island
in the South Atlantic (pop. 712), which would make an excellent Spaceport. It’s a dependency of
the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, and it’s only 8 degrees off the equator, giving you
lots of delta-v from the Earth’s spin.
There’s nothing east of it for 1500 Km until you hit Africa. That’s more than enough distance to
drop 1st and 2nd stages into the ocean if you feel so inclined.
In terms of infrastructure, both the European Space Agency and the United States maintains
missile and satellite tracking stations on the island. ESA tracks the Ariane 5 after liftoff from
The island has an airbase with a very long runway; it acts as an emergency runway for the Space
Shuttle, so is certainly long enough for winged first-stage boosters.
But Ascension Island is a long way away. We used to ship Black Arrow rockets out to Woomera in
Australia, and the French ship Arianes out to French Guiana, but it’s a big logistical exercise.
Is there any compass direction we can lob stuff from the UK mainland?
Slide 11 There’s a historical precedent here: as Nick Hill points out, there was a serious proposal to launch
satellites from the East coast of England back in the 60’s.
The thinking was that one could fire Black Arrow directly North up the North sea into polar orbit.
The launchsite was to have been on the north coast of Norfolk, near Brancaster.
There are two problems with lobbing from Spaceport Norfolk. The first is that you’re not far north
of the English Channel, the busiest shipping lane in the world.
The second is revealed from this rather fuzzy map showing today’s oilfields: the North sea is just
riddled with oilrigs.
The chances of a rocket falling on a ship or oilrig are slim, but it would make an awful mess if it
A safety zone of an area of 0.5 Km radius is established around all offshore oil and gas
installations which project above the sea. It is an offence (under section 23 of the Petroleum Act
1987) to enter a safety zone except under special circumstances. So a rocket falling vertically on
it would be sure to get fined.
The current working policy on safety is this: you work out the statistical likelihood of your rocket
going bang (prudence dictates 100%). Then you work out how many square metres of ground or
sea will be affected by falling debris or the crater from one complete rocket falling if it didn’t go
bang but the engine failed. This is the debris area.
Then you work out how many people there are per square metre of land or sea within your launch
site and underneath the planned trajectory. This is called the population density. Taking the debris
area and the population density, you can work out how many people would be killed if it all went
Accepted launch industry practice allows no greater than 30 x 10-6 (30-in-a-million) probability of
casualty among the uninvolved public on the ground.
So Norfolk’s not viable for safety reasons.
Britain’s pretty crowded, a high population density, so most of the UK is out for similar reasons.
Enormous A380 airliners laden with flammable kerosene are allowed to buzz all over capital cities
and it’s regarded as safe, but in the rocketry world, we take a dimmer view.
Slide 12 We need somewhere where people are few on the ground; we shouldn’t overfly any populated
areas, even hamlets.
In the UK, this means Northern Scotland.
Going back to the Black Arrow proposals, note that another site was considered: the existing
rocket test site on the island of Uist, in the Hebrides.
Uist was okay on safety, but was ruled out on grounds of inaccessibility and lack of infrastructure:
back in the late ‘60’s it’s true to say that the deserts around Woomera had more civilisation than
Uist: electricity supply was limited, and everything, including the ferries, shut on Sunday for
But times have changed, ferries operate 7 days a week, and the locals have electricity and
Further up this island chain, which is now all linked by road, is a large runway at Stornoway,
capable of handling heavy freight.
However, we don’t have to restrict ourselves to the Uist range. Though I’m slightly biased being a
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highlander, I’d argue that the North coast of Scotland has a lot of potential for lobbing into polar
orbits. The natives are friendly, and the food has improved out of all recognition.
Let’s look at the very northern coast: this used to be as isolated as you could get in the UK which
is why they built the experimental nuclear reactor at Dounreay up there in the ‘50’s.
But nowadays with the greatly improved roads, you can get from Glasgow to Dounreay in a few
hours, and thanks to North sea oil there are large settlements of highly skilled technical people
and high tech industry to the East, and down the East coast.
Dounrey is being decommissioned now. Back in the 80’s the managers actually considered
converting it into a launch site: they had a large technical staff who were facing redundancy, and
needed something to do.
It didn’t come to pass, but the idea’s sound. Perhaps not at Dounreay itself, which leaked, but
somewhere on the North coast.
Slide 13, Slide What sort of orbits would it be possible to reach from there?
14, & Slide 15
Well, one of the most popular and lucrative near-polar orbits is the sun synchronous orbit, so-
called because a satellite in this orbit will appear over the same spot on the Earth at the same
time of day every day. This makes it popular with remote sensing satellites.
This orbit is inclined at 98 degrees to the equator give or take a few parts of a degree dependant
on orbital altitude.
I fired up my trusty orbital launcher simulation to trace the trajectory of a three-stage microsat
launcher launching a nominal payload into a sun-synchronous orbit.
Launch mass was 3.5 tonnes, and the 32 kg payload was lobbed into a 340 Km circular orbit with
98.1 degree inclination.
To reach an orbit inclined at 98 degrees to the equator (8 degrees west of North), the vehicle has
to be fired on a heading of 15 degrees west of North. The reason this heading is further west than
the final orbit is due to having to cancel out the Earth’s spin at the launch latitude.
The exact launch location has to be selected so that the ensuing trajectory avoids overflying any
inhabited areas by the large 1st stage in case it misbehaves.
Equally, the 1st stage should not impact any inhabited areas after its engine burnout and
separation from the rest of the vehicle.
Slide 16 The areas that therefore have to be avoided are:
The Faroe Islands
The Faroes consist of eighteen islands; 17 of the 18 islands are inhabited. An autonomous region
The Faroese population is spread across most of the islands and numbers about 50,000. The
population density is 34/km² .
Slide 17 & Iceland
Slide 18 Comprises the island of Iceland and its outlying islets in the North Atlantic Ocean between the
rest of Europe and Greenland.
Population is 313,000. The population density is 3.1/km²
I first tried threading the trajectory between Iceland and the Faroes. Trouble was that my 1st stage
landed in the sea close to Iceland. If we look at the fishing grounds we see it’s right where the
fishing boats might be.
I could’ve steepened the ascent of the first stage so that it didn’t travel so far downrange. This
would make recovering a recoverable 1st stage easier.
Black Arrow’s trajectory was tweaked this way to keep it within the Woomera range; if fired on this
trajectory Black Arrow would have splashed down nearer to the Faroes.
But forcing the 1st stage steeper means that the trajectory is non-optimal; the 2nd and 3rd stages
have to work harder and so the payload suffers.
Another option here is to fire to the East of the Faroes. That puts first stage impact way out at
Slide 19 Here’s the ensuing trajectory.
Note that the second stage overflies Greenland and Ellesmere Island.
We must make sure that no inhabited areas are overflown by the admittedly smaller 2nd stage.
Slide 20 Greenland is the world’s largest island and is the largest dependent territory by area in the world.
The blue area on map is the ice sheet.
All towns and settlements of Greenland are situated along the ice-free coast, with almost all of the
population being concentrated along the South western coast.
Fortunately, the trajectory passes over the northeast.
Slide 21 The northeastern part of Greenland is the site of the world's largest national park, with an area of
972,000 square kilometres. This equates to an area comparable to some European countries.
The permanent population of the park is only around 50, in an area four times the land area of the
UK: a very low population density.
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Note the cross I’ve marked at Daneborg. That’s where the Greenland equivalent of the Canadian
Mounties live. The SIRIUS are a military equivalent of park rangers, who cover the whole park by
Overflying Daneborg wouldn’t be prudent! Fortunately, the trajectory passes south of it.
Ellesmere Island overflight
Ellesmere Island is part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It comprises an area of
196,235 km², making it the world's tenth largest island
In 2001, the population of Ellesmere Island was recorded as 168. There are three settlements on
Ellesmere Island: Alert, Eureka, and Grise Fiord.
Alert has many temporary inhabitants as it hosts a military signals intelligence radio receiving, a
weather station, and an airstrip. The overwintering population is 50
Eureka is a small research base consists of an airstrip, and a weather station. In 2005, it reported
a permanent population of 0 but has at least 8 staff on a continuous rotational basis.
Grise Fiord is a small Inuit hamlet in the territory of Nunavut. Grise Fiord is connected to the rest
of the world by Grise Fiord Airport. (DHC-6 Twin Otter planes carrying cargo with little to no
passengers.) According to the Canadian census the population is around 140.
Second stage impact
The second stage falls onto the arctic ice several hundred miles north of the Beaufort sea.
While there are a few oilrigs in the Beaufort sea itself, none are nearly so far north as the impact
Should the 3rd stage malfunction and fail to reach orbit, it might fall onto Alaska. The small size of
the 3rd stage and the remoteness of Alaska make the danger of impact to persons or property
So a sun-synch launch is possible.
There are other polar orbits attainable by aiming further East. There’s virtually nothing in the way
all the way up to the arctic ice.
Slide 22 You just have to aim to miss:
Jan Mayen Island, a part of the Kingdom of Norway, is a 55 km long and 373 km² in area
volcanic island in the Arctic Ocean, partly covered by glaciers. It has one unpaved airstrip, and its
coast includes no ports or harbors, only offshore anchorages.
The only inhabitants on the island are personnel working for the Royal Norwegian Defence Force
or the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
Population density: 0.08 per Km2
That’s low enough that you could overfly it if you really had to.
Slide 23 Svalbard Islands
Svalbard is an archipelago about midway between Norway and the North Pole. The archipelago is
the northernmost part of the Kingdom of Norway. The islands cover an area of 61,022 km², of
which about 60% is covered by glaciation.
Three islands are populated: Spitsbergen, Bjørnøya and Hopen.
There are several polar orbiting satellite stations on Svalbard, some owned by the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Population: 2200 people, and numerous ice-bears.
Population density is 0.04 per km2 That’s really low, but the moderate native population would
probably object to being flown over.
Avoiding the Svalbard Islands sets a limit on the lowest orbital inclination. Trajectories can only fly
to the west of the Svalbards, as trajectories to the east of them overfly northern Russia, and the
2nd stage impact would be on Russian territory.
Slide 24 This sets a limit of 5 degrees west of north on launch heading, resulting in an orbital inclination of
87 degrees (to the equator).
Thus, the allowable launch headings from the North of Scotland are between –15 (sun synch) to
+5 degrees of north.
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The +5 degree trajectory is shown on the following page:
2nd stage impact occurs to the north of the New Siberian Islands. There is no native population on
the New Siberian Islands, but the Russians have maintained meteorological and hunting stations
there since 1927.
Slide 25 Oilrigs
• Annoyingly, whilst oil platforms are stationary, oil rigs are exploratory, and move around
• A new service has been established (for fishermen) that shows all the Surface and
Subsea Oil & Gas related installations for the UK Continental Shelf area. They are
produced by Seafish, Kingfisher Information, in a format that can be read by fishing
plotter software; The full chart runs up to 64.5 degrees North, the Latitude of Iceland.
• It shows that there are very few oilrigs (circled in red) in current operation
• There may be exploration vessels in Iceland’s Dreki area which is in the 1st-stage
impact area. This needs further research.
Slide 26 Other Things To Avoid
• Obviously, these move around. The sea around the North coast of Scotland is quite
busy (although nothing in comparison to the North Sea). For example, 400 oil tankers
and cargo vessels a month (13 a day) pass along the Minch (the water between the
Outer Hebrides and the Scottish Mainland).
• There are ways of tracking some of the bigger ships via websites which are updated
regularly.These give the GPS position of each ship. The official body we would have to
contact are the Maritime and Coastguard Agency who are responsible for shipping
• Most of the aircraft that might be at risk from the first stage on either trajectory will
be flying across the Atlantic to and from the UK and Northern Europe, and so will
be following the North Atlantic Tracks (NAT tracks) .
• These are a series of airways that start at set fixed locations ‘in mid air’ off the
coast of Europe and America, and are spaced every degree of lat and long. Whilst
there are numerous starting points, only five or so tracks are active on any given
day, dependant on the weather and time of year. For example, aircraft flying from
America to Europe benefit from intercepting the Jet Stream, a corridor of air
travelling at 100 mph. The Nat tracks are therefore aimed to intercept the Jet
Stream.The NAT tracks help our situation, because once we’ve downloaded the
day’s tracks, we can pinpoint the trajectory of the majority of aircraft; they don’t
deviate from the tracks by more than 0.5 Nautical miles. Recently, the Strategic
Lateral Offset Procedure (SLOP) allows aircraft to fly at one or two nautical miles
laterally off of the track centreline, but again, this is a very small deviation.
• The formal body we would have to contact are Shanwick, the combined Air Traffic
Control of Shannon and Prestwick.
• Stornoway airport on the Outer Hebrides is on a major route to one of the track
starting points; this is near to the proposed launch site.
• One other notorious aspect of the North of Scotland is the weather. The aptly
named Cape Wrath is up there, it’s just awful in the winter.
• Another argument for lobbing from an aircraft is that the launch can occur
above the layer of the atmosphere known as the Troposphere. The Trop is
where the weather is, but during the winter it only extends up to about 30,000
feet, so launch at 50,000 feet and you’re well out of it.
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