A prototype space factory that can produce materials impossible to make on Earth will be on the first rocket to launch from UK soil later this summer.
Welsh startup Space Forge will use microgravity and the vacuum of space to make stronger, lighter metal alloys and super-efficient semiconductors.
The company told Sky News that components made in orbit could be in widespread use in as little as five years, in everything from aircraft engines to the electricity grid.
To test its plan for bringing materials back to Earth, the company will launch a satellite on a rocket due to lift off from Spaceport Cornwall in September.
The spaceport, the first in Europe, is based at Newquay Airport.
A Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 will take off from the same runway used by holiday jets, carry a rocket under its wing and release it at 35,000ft.
Andrew Bacon, a co-founder of Space Forge, said the launch will turn the UK into a “true space superpower”, with the ability to make and deploy world-leading satellite technology.
“The price of launch has come down massively,” he said. “Typically it used to cost $20,000 (£16,500) per kilogram. These days you can get as low as $1,000 (£830).
“There are materials out there worth way more. Nickel-based alloys used in aircraft turbines can cost $100,000 a kg. So the economics (of space manufacturing) start to work because the price of launch has come down so much.”
Although other companies have made small amounts of material and returned them to Earth, Space Forge will be the first to make them in commercial quantities.
The whole satellite will be brought down using still-secret technology, then refurbished and relaunched with a new batch of raw materials on board.
“Being able to launch from your home country is going to make a big difference,” said Mr Bacon.
“If you want to build a reliable, sustainable supply chain based in space, you can’t be flying to the other side of the world to source your materials when you want to make something.
“You want to launch and return here and use those products where they are needed.”
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From California to Newquay
Up to 10 satellites – some commercial, some military – are expected to be on the first launch, currently scheduled for 8 September.
Virgin Orbit’s jet Cosmic Girl will take off from Newquay Airport with LauncherOne, a 21-metre rocket, slung under its left wing.
Once it’s well clear of land and at the correct altitude, the pilot will lift the plane’s nose and drop the rocket, which seconds later will ignite its engine and power away on the perfect trajectory for putting satellites into an orbit that passes over the north and south poles.
In an exclusive interview, Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, told Sky News that the jet had previously operated thousands of passenger flights across the Atlantic before being repurposed for space transport.
“We have recycled the airplane, so it’s a critical part of our launch infrastructure,” he said.
“It gives the rocket its first step, taking it to 35,000 feet, the better part of Mach 1 (almost the speed of sound), and two thirds of the way through the atmosphere before the rocket has to do any work at all.”
Newquay will be the company’s first launch facility outside California.
UK a ‘heavy-hitter’ at building small satellites
Mr Hart said the UK was attractive because it had the “technology and desire” to be a space nation.
Two other traditional “vertical-launch” spaceports are currently seeking approval on the tip of mainland Scotland and on the Shetland Islands.
But Spaceport Cornwall says “horizontal-launch”, with rockets being carried on aircraft that use a commercial airport, keeps infrastructure and cost to a minimum.
Sky News was shown around the building at the airport that is currently being fitted out with a dust-free “clean room” where satellites will be loaded into the rocket.
Melissa Thorpe, head of the spaceport, said the UK was a “heavy-hitter” when it came to building small satellites, but until now has had to send them overseas for launch.
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UK-Indian company OneWeb had a launch of 36 internet satellites on a Russian rocket cancelled at the last minute in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.
Ms Thorpe said: “We don’t have a lot of control over how satellites are launched, who with, where from – and maybe some of the activities that go on in some of those locations.
“So for us, it’s important to help create a sovereign launch capability, with satellites being driven down the road to a spaceport and go up to space in a way that is more transparent.”
The Spaceport will be a significant boost to the economy of Cornwall, one of the UK’s most deprived regions.
The company expects to employ 150 people directly, with a further 240 jobs in its supply chain. Several companies are also planning to open facilities around the airport to form a space cluster.
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