On 28 June 2022, we held our ninth RHEA Talk webinar, in which experts discussed the aims and challenges facing all those involved in the commercial launch market, including regulatory, technical and environmental issues. The number of commercial operators is growing fast and this, together with advancements in CubeSats and SmallSats, means access to space is becoming easier. But where are we now and what hurdles still need to be overcome?
Hosted by John Bone, RHEA’s Chief Commercial Officer, our panel included:
- Alison MacCorquodale, Economic Development Officer for Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, Scotland, with responsibility for the development of Spaceport 1 on North Uist
- Alan Thompson, Head of Government Affairs, Skyrora
- Patrizio Summa, Director of Special Projects and Performance Monitoring, and Commercial Coordinator of Aeroporti di Puglia S.p.A
- Christopher Brain, Operational Lead, EUROCONTROL
- Mark Roberts, Defence and Security Director, RHEA Group
Watch the complete webinar (1 hour)
What challenges have you seen in the development of Spaceport 1?
Mark: RHEA is providing project and technical support to the team in the Western Isles of Scotland for the development of a spaceport dedicated to suborbital launch. The project is going through planning approval and we are expecting consent within the next 3 to 6 months. The infrastructure is modest but sophisticated, and we are expecting to be fully operational in Q2 of 2023, delivering up to 10 launches a year.
We have a healthy pipeline of customers and a therefore a good customer base for a sustainable business. Nevertheless, there are challenges, which I would sum up as viability, credibility, stakeholder engagement and regulation. This sort of launch is new for the UK and that underpins all the challenges we face.
Mark Roberts, Defence and Security Director, RHEA
Determining the viability of the site and the operations we planned was the key first step. For example, we are designing a facility that can be used for more than one customer, which in itself presents its own challenges. Then there were elements of safety around the design, which we were addressing in a regulatory vacuum, knowing that the regulation was going to be considerable. It also needed to be commercially viable. There are no large profits in suborbital launch, so our business model focussed on providing economic benefits to the local area, including generating jobs.
In terms of credibility, we have stayed away from the hyperbole around the UK launch endeavour and focussed on being credible about what we say we can deliver, supported by the ‘concept of operations’ we have developed over time. As a result, we have ended up with very good relationships with all of our stakeholders. Due to the ambiguity around the regulations, which is now diminishing, we have had to be good at horizon scanning and then engaging with those that could help us solve problems – whatever they were – and testing concepts with experts. Being prepared to take an iterative approach and change direction when needed has been vital.
What challenges has local government faced in realizing economic benefits from Spaceport 1?
Alison: We have to diversify and grow the local economy. And we have to create jobs for local people. It has been challenging in terms of planning, as it would be for any developer, but in this case as a local authority we are both the developer and the regulator. So we have to be hugely cautious about the approach we take.
We know Scotland is perfect for a spaceport as it has a huge landmass with a low population density, particularly in rural areas. But it is also full of environmentally sensitive and protected areas. Those designations make achieving planning permission very difficult, especially at a time when everybody is more environmentally aware. It has been very challenging and time-consuming to establish the environmental baseline and define the technical specifications for each of the launch vehicles we have included, as launch operators are furiously trying to satisfy their stakeholders and shareholders.
Managing expectations is a big challenge. Much as there is a huge amount of support locally, there is also a strong opposition group, so we also have to raise awareness of what a spaceport is not – Spaceport 1 is not going to be the Cape Canaveral of the Western Isles. This is one of the reasons we took so much care over the environmental impact assessment (EIA).
Equally, another issue has been a lack of awareness of the planning process and particularly the nuances of undertaking an EIA – what people do not realise is that this is rocket science, unlike most of the projects the council delivers! It is hugely complicated. Stakeholder engagement is vital.
If you are going to build a spaceport, you need plenty of time and plenty of tenacity!
Alison MacCorquodale, Economic Development Officer, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar
How does a launch operator see the challenges associated with being a spaceport customer?
Alan: When we started Skyrora 5 years ago, we had a blank piece of paper, so we chose to start with something small and then escalate to the next level as a way of de-risking the project. In fact, the Spaceport 1 project has been incredibly good for us as a partner and participant in the process, as it has been a learning curve. Now we are very much part of this project because we have had to share our requirements and needs for the economic and environmental evaluations.
This process applies to absolutely everything involved in a launch vehicle, including everything to do with its safe operation, how we treat the launch pad and how we engage with the spaceport itself. And it is not just about the land; it is also about the air and the space above it – who is managing the airspace into which we are firing our rocket?
The extensive process was good for informing the regulator in terms of what was required for regulation, but from our point of view it is never fast enough! We are in a race against time to capture new data that will help us manage our environment better, as 80% of the satellites we launch will be Earth observation satellites; this means we have the environment in mind as we develop. We want the public to understand what this activity involves – that the deliverables include not just jobs, but also benefits for the environment.
Alan Thompson, Head of Government Affairs, Skyrora
We are also doing ‘preventative engagement’ – talking to people who do not yet know that they may be affected by the launches. In our case this has meant talking to the Icelandic authorities as one of our stages will end up in Icelandic waters.
Moving away from Spaceport 1, what challenges have you seen in spaceport activities in Italy?
Patrizio: Due to favourable conditions, Taranto-Grottaglie airport in Southern Italy is being designed by the Italian Civil Aviation Authority ENAC as the sole national spaceport because of the requirements for horizontal launch. This was a result of a study of the situation and also the commercial exploitation of these facilities.
Building the proper infrastructure is not the most time-consuming challenge. Instead the challenge is the regulation and national and international agreements to guarantee properly licensed operation of the spaceport. ENAC published regulations in October 2020 but a new version is coming, so this is a challenge for us. All the planning, regulations and operation will have to be discussed with the operator that will fly out of Grottaglie because the facilities and infrastructure that we build have to work for that operator.
Commercially, we think that in Grottaglie there will be suborbital operations in 3 to 5 years’ time, with shared or dedicated satellite launches, including governmental launches, which we think will happen first.
We are creating a new company to manage the spaceport to attract investment and partnerships, because we think that the spaceport will become an ecosystem, including a university and other stakeholders. We see it having a positive economic impact on the economy of Puglia and the connection with the university is an important aspect we are aiming for.
Patrizio Summa, Aeroporti di Puglia S.p.A
Is European airspace and aviation ready for commercial spaceflight?
Christopher: ‘Yes and no’ is our answer! EUROCONTROL’s mission is to support European aviation, not the space sector. But occasionally we have been involved in the firing of rockets when we have helped traffic route around the relevant airspace, such as from French Guyana or in the North Atlantic. We are now working on this with the European Commission.
Airspace is a resource, just like the sea and land. Today we are only occupying about 10% to 15% of it with normal traffic and if we look at it vertically it is barely used at all. But one of the challenges for us is that the space sector is just one sector that is now competing potentially for airspace above 50,000 feet.
Chris Brain, Operational Lead, EUROCONTROL
There are high altitude, long endurance platforms, the return of supersonic transport and also hypersonic transport. Commercial space seems to be most advanced, but in future, all of these will be looking for reserved airspace with dedicated trajectories that we will have to manage.
There are three challenges we see involving these new entrants. One is how to integrate their needs and integrate them in the airspace below 50,000 feet [approximately 15 kilometres]. Then what services are required above 50,000 feet up to the edge of space? And thirdly, how will we interact with space traffic management – today that is about monitoring satellites, but with operations transiting to and from space, how will we operate in that new regime? And then, of course, the airlines are concerned by this disruptive innovation – just as they are being asked to reduce emissions, having to route around areas of segregated airspace is yet another challenge on their long list.
We are now drafting a concept of operations which will describe how we manage all of this on a short-, medium- and long-term basis, with 2050 as the final goal. But the demand analysis is a real challenge. And then there will be issues such as certification, permits and so on. We are in a dialogue with many organizations about all of this, including the operators, and this is a high priority for us.
Will space tourism be set aside in favour of strategic competition in space and military interests?
Mark: The relationship between space tourism and other launch activities is being skewed by the commercial realities, rather than anything else. As for the relationship between the economic aspects of space and military interests – that will get closer, because most spacefaring nations, and other nations who use their products, are seeing the incredible economic benefits of dual use.
Alan: What we are seeing now is the commercialization of space. In the US, the industry is very heavily supported by government – there is a lot of commercial money in it, but without government money it would not exist. The model the UK is trying to use is to make it commercially viable without the same significant government investment. The challenge is that the paradigm is changing. New Space needs to be reactive, responsive and agile – and we need to collaborate across the challenges that face us as humankind, not just as governments.
What is being done to mitigate the environmental impacts of spaceports?
Alison: The main mitigation [in Spaceport 1] is that we moved from focussing on orbital to sub-orbital. We then spent much of our time looking at the ground station pad design, coming up with a very sophisticated pad and drainage system that will be able to deal with a catastrophic launch failure – although we are confident that will not happen.
Patrizio: We think that Grottaglie is in a location that is ideal for this type of operation because of the low habitation density and low impact around the area. But the environment issue for us has been a very important part of our risk assessment, as well as the operational risk. For that reason, we commissioned a study specifically to look at urbanistic and environmental problems.