21st May 2018
By Julia Penhaligon
Today’s (Monday’s) announcement of a formal Ministry of Defence initiative for launching satellites has posed new questions over the location for Britain’s first spaceport.
Newquay is among several sites currently under consideration for a slice of £50 million government funding to help create a privately-run commercial facility for satellite launch and even, eventually, space tourism.
But several unexplained delays to the announcement have fuelled speculation that the RAF’s operational requirements have trumped the interests of business and transport ministers, and that an old-fashioned inter-departmental Whitehall turf-war has finally been resolved by the Treasury – with the Ministry of Defence coming out on top.
There are fears that the Treasury has been keen to recover the £1 billion previously invested in a European Union project which will not now be available to Britain after Brexit. The new MoD project is likely to take priority and could further delay any funding for any private spaceport, or even scupper such ventures completely.
Today’s announcement of a Defence Space Strategy follows the RAF’s launch, two months ago, of its first “independent” satellite, Carbonite 2. The small satellite, which streams video images direct to the cockpit of RAF jets, was launched from a rocket base in India.
Carbonite 2 is a “cheap-and-cheerful” approach to space technology, using an off-the-shelf telescope and a standard High Definition video camera. Carbonite 2 went from drawing board to orbit in only eight months and cost only £4.5 million.
For the RAF, the prospect of Britain losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system next March demands a rapid, low-cost, post-Brexit alternative. Today’s announcement envisages a £3.7 billion boost to the space sector, but also suggests that the investment will come with military strings attached.
There are growing concerns that several UK locations might be awarded licences to operate commercial spaceports – but that they are now less likely to secure government funding.
The Sriharikhota space base in India, which sent the Carbonite 2 satellite into orbit. The RAF has historically used vertical take-off rockets to deliver its hardware.
Newquay & St Austell MP Steve Double nevertheless told Cornwall Reports he remained optimistic that commercial spaceports would still come forward and that Newquay was still the best location. “We need to be in position to get a major slice of the space industry economy by 2030,” he said, “and Newquay is very well suited.
“In all of my talks with both the private sector backers and the government’s civil servants, no-one has suggested that there was a pecking order and that the Ministry of Defence had to have priority,” he said. “Having said that, the Newquay bid is next to RAF St Mawgan and could be an ideal location to house both commercial space flights and to cater for military requirements.
“I think we will hear from the government very soon with a formal announcement about commercial spaceports and I still think it’s looking good for Newquay.”
The Ministry of Defence’s best-known satellite communications system is Skynet, which is operated by the Euro-consortiums Astrium, based in Paris, and Airbus, whose headquarters are in Germany.
Both Skynet and Carbonite 2 were launched using vertical take-off rocket systems, rather than the horizontal launch system potentially available at Newquay.