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UK signs space launch deal with the US that will see American rockets launch from British spaceports

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A new deal between the UK and US governments will see American companies operate and launch from British spaceports for the first time.

The technology safeguards agreement will let US firms contribute to and benefit from the £14.8 billion per year British space sector that employs 42,000 people.

As part of the deal, American companies will be able to launch from British spaceports in Cornwall and Scotland over the next few years.   

The agreement will also allow US firms to bring rocket hardware into the UK – something that is normally very tightly restricted. 

Virgin Orbit is one of the US based operators keen to launch from the UK

Virgin Orbit is one of the US based operators keen to launch from the UK 

This is one of the designs for the horizontal take-off spaceport proposed for Cornwalll. The spaceport, due to be operation in the early 2020s, will be used to launch satellites into orbit

This is one of the designs for the horizontal take-off spaceport proposed for Cornwalll. The spaceport, due to be operation in the early 2020s, will be used to launch satellites into orbit

So far the UK government has awarded grants worth almost £40 million to set up commercial vertical and horizontal satellite launches from the UK. 

However, with many launch providers, such as Virgin Orbit, based in the US, this agreement was needed before they could begin operations in the UK. 

Access Space, an industry body for commercial space operations in the UK, have welcomed the move, calling it an important development.

‘We are thrilled that the UK has signed such agreement as it would boost the space sector in the UK,’ said co-founder and director Tony Azzarelli.

He said it would boost the industry both from lending a hand to US launchers, as well as increasing the importance of the UK as a launching state.

Having US launchers operating on British soil would also provide a boost to British rocket firms such as Skyrora, Orbex, Reaction Engines and Rocket Plane.

Notional image of the UK's first commercial spaceport at the Sutherland Site in Melness, Scotland, which will conduct the UK's first vertical, orbital rocket launch in the early 2020s

Notional image of the UK’s first commercial spaceport at the Sutherland Site in Melness, Scotland, which will conduct the UK’s first vertical, orbital rocket launch in the early 2020s

A 6.5ft (2m) rocket called Skylark Nano blasted off from Fethaland Peninsula on the mainland of Shetland and reached an altitude of around 20,000 feet (6km) recently and the company hope to send satellites into space from the UK by 2022

A 6.5ft (2m) rocket called Skylark Nano blasted off from Fethaland Peninsula on the mainland of Shetland and reached an altitude of around 20,000 feet (6km) recently and the company hope to send satellites into space from the UK by 2022

It would also help the likes of Spaceport Cornwall and Astroscale – a private space debris removal company based in the UK.

‘The deal would also give European companies an additional choice when coming to select a launching state,’ said Azzarelli.

Government officials hope to have the first launches from British soil within the decade and some companies like Skyrora are planning to launch as early as 2021. 

The UK Government’s Spaceflight Programme aims to establish commercial vertical and horizontal small satellite launch from UK spaceports. 

This is designed to act as a catalyst for growth in the wider space industry, according to a government spokesperson, who said the government is also developing a comprehensive national space strategy.

The goal of the strategy is to bring long-term strategic and commercial benefits.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said the deal takes us one step closer to seeing the first ever space launch from British soil.

‘This is a key moment for our commercial space industry, and I look forward to seeing companies from Scotland to Newquay benefiting, and the creation of highly skilled jobs on both sides of the Atlantic,’ Solloway said.

It’s not just about the rockets or the launch though, the deal covers the whole component supply chain and opens that up to US firms.

There are also other steps needed before the launches can start.

Some legislation has already been through Parliament, but safety rules and regulations are also required – something expected to happen this year.

Virgin Orbit, sister company of Virgin Galactic is based in California, but hopes to be able to launch from Spaceport Cornwall – based in Newquay.

Their system is horizontal – they take off from a traditional jet with the rocket onboard – get to a higher altitude then ignite the rocket.

Skyrora XL is a three-stage rocket which the British rocket scientists hope will take satellites and place them into sun-synchronous orbit up to 620 miles above Earth from Scotland

Skyrora XL is a three-stage rocket which the British rocket scientists hope will take satellites and place them into sun-synchronous orbit up to 620 miles above Earth from Scotland

Lockheed Martin, the US aerospace giant, has also expressed interest in launching from the Scottish spaceport at Sutherland.

That spaceport is due to have its planning permission request discussed by the council in the next few days.

If this all goes to plan there could be a number of spaceports across the UK including Shetland, Western Isles, Glasgow, Campbeltown and Snowdonia.

Karen Pierce, UK Ambassador to the US said the agreement is the start of a new era for UK-US space collaboration.

‘The commercial space sector already represents hundreds of millions of dollars in trade between our two countries each year, as well as thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic,’ she said.

‘This new agreement will generate further growth and prosperity for both our countries.’

Spaceport Cornwall said: ‘This is amazing news for the UK space industry. Our thanks for all the hard work in delivering this vital agreement.’

‘We know our colleagues at the UK Space Agency have worked tirelessly to secure this deal – bringing us one step closer to launch from UK Soil.’

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