Why Seaborne Launch is a Big Thing for a Small Island Nation

The United Kingdom is a broad quilt of diverse landscapes: rolling fields; coastal ecosystems; lowlands and uplands; mountains and moor.  As an island nation, it also lays claim to one of the longest coastlines in Europe and one of the largest marine environments and maritime areas in the World.

The UK Government has stated publicly the desire to support and develop a launch capability, open to foreign investment and operation, to deliver small satellites to polar orbits.  This will help to propel the home industry in small satellite manufacturing to sustainable growth and enhance the supply chain capability in an expanding global marketplace.

The solution that has received the broadest support in Government circles, is the ‘obvious’ utilisation of remote Northern coastlines to site a launch complex – lots of available land and low levels of population to disrupt, low land prices and a high need for ‘jobs’, to boost the local economy.

All fine, except that the remote landscape has attracted a good number of influential individual landowners, who wish to see an undisturbed wild landscape maintained, for the benefit of the nation.

These remote locations also have challenges with logistics, security, available skilled manpower, weather and local politics.

The question that arises immediately is:  how can these two positions be balanced against each other? On the one hand, the UK looks to become a new nexus on the expansion of global commercial launch; and on the other, be respectful of the tranquillity of the sensitive environments threatened by this desire.

When we consider ‘new’ launch nations, we need perhaps to look no further than New Zealand.  With a great deal of help from US space giant Lockheed Martin and a Government favourable in its support to local capabilities, the emergence of Rocket Lab as a serious asset in the launch of small satellites from its Southern Hemisphere base at Mahia, on North Island’s East coast, near Gisborne, has been nothing short of mercurial.  The development has, however, not had to deal with historical land-use, or protection issues and has needed little in the way of infrastructure development to access roads, bridges or such like. Security, especially for US Government payloads, is simplicity in itself.

The main road runs a few miles away, but the access to the site, although challenging, is not hampering.  There is no issue with local population: the few residents are welcoming of the new attention being given to hotels, campgrounds, and other hostelries, during campaigns.  The drive time from Auckland is around 4 hours and from Wellington around 3 hours.

Local wildlife is not subject to protection: the area around Mahia is Southern Pacific Ocean, with no cliffs or beaches for birds, seals or flora to congregate exclusively.

The weather, of course, is perfect.  The rainy season (May-August) is a great time for maintenance and practice, leaving the majority of the year basking in generally fine weather, with light winds and excellent visibility.  Any major weather systems tend to come from the West (Tasman Sea).

Other than the regular low-seismicity (and very occasional 4+) earthquakes, the land is stable.

The flight path is out into the Southern Ocean, with no resident populations, islands, air corridors, oil/gas facilities, or other nations to complicate matters – just a straight line of fire to orbit.

The Range responsibilities remain the same as anywhere, of course:  making sure fishing boats don’t stray into the danger area; recovery and monitoring systems are in place in case of Flight Abort and communication with the Authorities.

The UK, by contrast, is a very different set of circumstances on every count and, as such, the business case for siting of a space launch facility in the region is a challenge in itself.

On every metric (from above), compared to NZ, the UK is inferior.  Land is privately-owned by wealthy individuals and protected species are abundant everywhere (for some endangered flora and wetland, exclusively so); access is not well developed – the transit time from London is 12-18 hours by road, from Glasgow/Edinburgh, it is ~6 hours, although the roads are similar in quality to NZ; populations are split in their enthusiasm for such facilities and it’s debatable whether locals will see the available jobs as opportunities.

The available flight paths (except in Shetland) have populations or national infrastructure overflights, needing flight deviations (called dog-legs), which sap the performance of the flight vehicle and, ultimately, reduce the capacity of the payload.  In many cases, the flight paths also fly over Faeroe Islands or Iceland, requiring additional national agreements to reach approval.

The main obstruction, however, is the unpredictable weather, in all seasons.  Wind, visibility and rain/snow create difficulties, which are exacerbated by the inability to determine, with any great accuracy, a flight window.  This plays havoc with planning, campaigns for readiness of payload, vehicle, range and personnel, but also notification to the authorities.  It could be a reality that a launch operation needs to be on standby for <5 days, to launch as soon as the weather light goes green.

This all adds to the downside of the business case.  If a launch operator is hoping to offer their services at a cost-effective price to customers, the recurring cost of campaign and active overhead must be minimised and tightly controlled.  In New Zealand, the prevailing conditions support this: in Scotland the opposite is true.  If it all comes down to operational control, the weather wins, every time.

So, how can the UK neutralise the weather factor in an operational business case, to match the ‘perfect’ flight conditions found in NZ, and allow a UK based launch service which can minimise and control the costs and overheads, to succeed?

The answer is to take the operation to sea.

One major difference between NZ and UK is the location in (geographical) Europe and the adjacency to Europe (political) and North America.  This places a UK operation at the heart of satellite manufacturing and satellite-related major entities (communications, earth observational and data).

Of all the potential launch sites in Europe (discounting current ESA facility in French Guyana), the UK is the most optimal location, from a perspective of security and line-of-sight to orbit (LOSTO).

The geo-location is a major benefit, to global satellite operators, but especially to non-US-aligned nations and regions.  With Asia and Africa increasing in importance in satellite usage in the coming years, a launch operator who is not influenced by the US becomes a player, which explains why US space giants are keen to get involved in a UK launch role.

The seaborne spaceport construct is a complex array of capabilities: an extended spaceport (dry side and wet side), with vehicle and payload preparation areas, propellant storage, launch table/gantry assemblies, blast mitigation, automatic fuelling and launch operations, a local range for <50 miles, and all the security, safety and assurance functions expected and regulated by the UK Legislation.  A command vessel will accompany the pad vessel to support the campaign, provide a manned telemetry and command centre, and provide a refuge for the evacuated campaign team during hazardous operations.  Further vessels will be added (propellant tender, ferry, patrol boats) as needed.

The operation will also contain a ranging capability to orbit and tracking of returned stages for recovery. These will be located according to requirement and likely include existing facilities operated by third parties under a special joint-utility agreement.

Although technically agnostic to the particular vehicle system flying from the spaceport, certain aspects do need to be considered to ensure compatibility: notably, the matching of the telemetry systems; the propellants stored and used; and dimensional sizing of the vehicles to be used.

The most optimal solution of course, is for the spaceport to be tailored to one particular system.  This removes the need for added assurances of compatibility and safety between campaigns, and reduces the likelihood of avoidable errors, leading to major, critical or catastrophic hazard and delay, ultimately increasing the operational cost.

The spaceport, of course, will have two distinct parts: the dockside facilities; and the seaborne segment.  To achieve a seamless functionality, the two sides must be compatible in every sense – the dockside must be tailor-made for the seaborne segment; in dimension, utilisation; service; and operation.  The seaborne part can berth in any suitable facility: to receive fuel, supplies, or supporting services.  However, for all launch-related issues, the dockside part is the only pure interface.

In operation, the seaborne spaceport achieves high marks in all spaceport functions, including low-risk to personnel and property, environmental credentials, low operating costs, high safety and security attributes, high efficiency of campaign and rapid turnaround speed, for greater flexibility and responsiveness.

The launch location can be adjusted for direct LOSTO (to all trajectories), with no disruption of air corridors, or overflight of national infrastructure.

In all the metrics discussed above, the seaborne solution provides the most optimal operation.  Except for weather.

Mobile launch operations can be performed using one of two systems: air-launched, or sea-launched (mobile land launch is limited to smaller, sub-orbital vehicles).

Air-launched satellite systems are based at approved airfields, with all the systems as required for all spaceports, plus others specific to aircraft maintenance and launch vehicle safety on a carrier aircraft.  They are largely identical to sea-launched systems, except for one major issue: the weather.

Like many large aircraft, air-launched systems cannot take off in inclement conditions and even an unsympathetic wind speed and/or direction could be difficult, especially with a fuelled rocket underneath.

Sea-launched systems, on the other hand, can begin launch operations immediately and sail through adverse weather to find conditions to support a launch attempt.  This can be adjusted in minutes by on-board meteorological forecasting and assessment systems, in order to be able to launch as soon as practicable.

In effect, the seaborne spaceport ‘chases’ the weather to maximise the likelihood of success, thereby neutralising the weather factor.

The sea, of course, makes up 70% of the Earth’s surface.  In theory at least, that makes a seaborne spaceport the most efficient of all spaceports, in that it can support satellite launch activities from 70% of the World’s nations.

This opens all kinds of possibilities in the expansion of satellite design and manufacture, usage and exploitation around the world – to non-space nations, diverse populations and developing regions.

A perfect system for extending the societal benefits of utilising space for peaceful commercial space-related purposes, promoting skills and capabilities to all regions of the world.

Paul Williams


Disclaimer:  The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Black Arrow Space Technologies Ltd.

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