Skyrora Is Set to Make the UK a Rocket Launching Nation for the First Time Since the 70s

Elmira TanatarovaFeatures

The space industry has been booming over the past decade. Image courtesy of Sergey Nivens via shutterstock.

While the Milky Way may be light years away, a booming space industry over the past decade, which has seen rocket and satellite technology at the forefront of innovation, is bringing more of us closer to the stars. Elon Musk may be the first name that comes to mind in the new space race, with the super industry giant SpaceX which last year was the first private company to send humans into orbit. And now there’s Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who threw his hat into the ring in 2019 by founding Blue Origin, which earlier this month sent its first crewed mission into space.

However, the home turf of Neil Armstrong isn’t the only country looking to compete in the final frontier market. The UK’s space industry, while historically not a big player in the space race, has also been innovating, developing and experimenting over the last few years.

Just this week the Department for Transport announced new regulations which will enable the UK to be the first European country to launch spacecraft and satellites from home soil. The first launch of a spacecraft or satellite from the UK is expected to take place next year. The UK Space Agency also just opened a funding call which invites the space sector to bid for up to £500,000 to boost exploration technology.

British rocket manufacturer Skyrora, founded in 2017 and based in Edinburgh, is the UK’s most advanced launching company and is on track to be the first UK company to launch satellites from Europe after receiving the ESA C-STS grant of $3.5 million. The grant was crucial to the development of its Skyrora XL launch vehicle.

Last May Skyrora completed the first ground rocket test in the UK for 50 years.

It has produced various development launch vehicles with which multiple successful launch missions have been carried out; most recent examples being its Skylark Nano rocket from Shetland and the Skylark Micro vehicle, which launched from Iceland.

The team at Skyrora spoke with The Org about the future of the UK space industry, the company’s place in it and how it’s been building a team during COVID.

Business team member Molly Mitchell-Knight said when the UK’s Black Arrow programme ended in 1971, the UK space industry came to a halt, but the formation of the UK Space Agency in 2010 reversed that trend and allowed the country to take part in global space industry innovations.“Skyrora, which takes inspiration from the Black Arrow programme, aims to play a significant part in the UK space industry’s projection to capture 10% of the global market by 2030,” she said.

Skyrora plans to be the first-to-market, end-to-end space transportation service, and by doing so it will be able to support the growing demand for the small satellite market to reach space. Its aim is to provide services to the satellite industry, to enable “essential Earth observation and research required to help our changing climate.”

Before May 2021 there were no regulations to allow spaceflight in the UK This May saw Parliamentary action to allow future satellite and rocket launches from new UK spaceports.

Mitchell-Knight said that with spaceports planned for Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, spaceflight would be viable by 2022 and Skyrora was fully backing that development.“By partnering with UK spaceports to encourage development, spaceflight has become accessible from British soil, hence the satellite and launch service market is far more able to access space.”

She also said that while the UK space industry does not yet support human space travel, “by increasing awareness and gaining public and government support of the importance of space activity, there is no doubt this will become a possibility.”

Business Support Officer Hally Houldsworth explained that working on such a big project with a growing team was a hurdle, especially during the pandemic.

“As daily operations at Skyrora near our goals of achieving orbital launch by 2022, we have seen the need for a larger team in order to manage the large workload that comes with this progression,” Houldsworth said, adding that growth had allowed for the company to say on target for its 2022 launch.The company has grown each year since 2017, with its workforce increasing to 191 employees this year -- 39 based in the UK and 152 in Ukraine. To Houldsworth, the “most important lesson” learned there was “the importance of teamwork.”

“Re-allocation meant a large amount of ambiguity within our teams and the direction in which their work was headed. Having such a strong team at Skyrora, we were incredibly fortunate to be able to put our heads together to best put the last year and a half to use in order to continue on our developmental path and generate the best outcome for the company,” she said.

Skyrora was able to continue operation during the pandemic and re-focused a portion of its operations to produce PPE for frontline and essential workers.

A large part of the company’s engineering team was also able to continue technical work carried out at Skyrora’s workshop in a COVID-safe manner, and the business team relocated to work from home.

Houldsworth told The Org that despite all Skyrora was able to overcome, adjusting workflows was initially difficult and getting back into the groove of innovation was still an ongoing process.

“Within the space industry in particular, the biggest challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was repurposing areas of operations in order to contribute to the protection of frontline workers and the most vulnerable within our society,” she said.

“As the need for such PPE subsided and operations returned to a near-normal status, great developments have been achieved within the UK space sector.”

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