The launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 may have been delayed until 2nd September at the earliest, but a British space endeavour fared a little better earlier this month, when private enterprise Skyrora successfully completed the static fire test of the second stage of its flagship Skyrora XL orbital rocket.
Skyrora hopes to begin commercial launches from the planned Saxa Vord Space Centre in Unst, next year.
Discover Space UK at Machrihanish Airbase, Scotland hosted the biggest integrated stage test to be held in the UK since those of Black Arrow and Blue Streak in the 1970s.
The company says achieving this latest milestone moves Skyrora one crucial step closer to entering commercial operations, with an inaugural orbital launch scheduled for 2023 from the SaxaVord Space Centre in northern Scotland.
Of course, what downthetubes readers will be asking is – when’s Dan Dare reporting for duty? But joking aside, this all sounds very promising for the British space industry.
The successful test, which was attended by the British government-appointed “Space Champion”, David Morris MP, was followed this week by a visit to Skyrora’s facilities in Cumbernauld by the first Chief of Space Operations for the United States, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, as US interest grows in the British rocket company. It’s hoped the landmark visit will bolster the key space relationship between the UK and US ahead of Skyrora’s plans to be the first UK company to complete a vertical launch from home soil in 2023.
“The static fire test looks, sounds and feels a lot like a rocket launch, but without lifting off!” commented Skyrora COO Col (USAF, Ret) and former SpaceX VP, Lee Rosen. “This hugely successful test was a definitive demonstration of our mobility and flexibility. Our Skyrora team went from clean tarmac to a full static fire test in just 2.5 days, bringing all the necessary equipment from our factory in Cumbernauld and test site near Gorebridge”.
The test involves hot firing the second stage engine to prove the vehicle’s operational capability for its intended payloads and ensure that its performance meets all the design requirements. It was successfully completed with all systems nominal throughout the 20-second burn, and the single 70kN liquid engine operated within design margins and achieved the expected thrust.
“With the UK striving to capture a 10 per cent share of the global space market by 2030, the successful Skyrora XL second stage static fire test is the latest milestone reached to put Skyrora on track to become a key part of the UK’s new space industry,” said Volodymyr Levykin, Founder and CEO of Skyrora, said, “as the first British company to conduct vertical launch from UK soil. Skyrora now has purpose-built rocket manufacturing and testing facilities in the UK – as well as the largest 3D printer of its kind, which we are using to produce rocket engine components. We recognise the value that a strong domestic space industry will bring to the UK, and we will continue to spearhead these efforts to make the UK a player to be reckoned with globally.”
The second stage was assembled at Skyrora’s recently-unveiled Cumbernauld manufacturing facility. Part of a three-stage launch vehicle, the second stage of Skyrora XL will start its engine at an altitude of approximately 62km before the third stage is fired at around 190km to achieve orbital velocity of 28,000 km/h. Skyrora previously tested the third stage of its XL launch vehicle in December 2020, setting the mark for the first integrated stage test by a commercial launch vehicle developer in the UK. The first stage of Skyrora XL is currently in construction, with hot fire tests due to take place in mid-2023.
Discover Space UK at Machrihanish Airbase in Scotland proved an ideal test site given its geographical advantages and historical links. As a former military base, the site hosted a US Air Force detachment of strategic bombers during World War Two, and was used by RAF and NATO air forces until 1997. The airstrip at Machrihanish was also a designated emergency landing site during NASA’s space shuttle era.
The completion of the second stage static fire test marks a key milestone achievement for Skyrora under its Boost! co-funding agreement with the European Space Agency, supported by the UK Space Agency.
“It’s exciting to see Skyrora complete these static fire engine tests, building on the successful opening of its new production facility in Cumbernauld,” noted Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said. “As we soar towards the UK’s first commercial space launches, these achievements showcase our rapidly growing capabilities, and the increasing range of expertise that can make the UK a highly attractive destination for launch activities in Europe. We’ll continue to support the development of new launch infrastructure and technology, and look forward to following the next steps of Skyrora’s journey to orbit.”
“It has been excellent to witness the successful second stage test for the Skyrora XL launch vehicle,” said Thilo Kranz, Commercial Space Transportation Programme Manager at the European Space Agency. “This test is also an important step towards ESA’s objective of fostering new commercial European launch services to become available in the near future. Congratulations to the whole Skyrora team!”
“Discover Space UK is delighted to host exciting companies such as Skyrora who are developing new capabilities within the UK’s emerging spaceflight industry,” said Andy Grey, Member of the Board at Discover Space UK, “as part of UK ambitions to be a science and technology superpower. DSUK wants to see the future of science and industry coming to Machrihanish and benefiting from our fantastic infrastructure and landscape.”
Commenting on his visit this week, General John W. “Jay” Raymond said “Now, more than ever, international cooperation in space is critically important. And the proliferation of commercial space efforts helps all spacefaring nations by driving costs down. I appreciate the fantastic tour of the Skyrora facilities and the opportunity to spend time with the impressive team there.”
While on site, General Raymond was able to witness the UK’s launch industry capabilities first hand, where three launch vehicles are currently in production. Housing the largest hybrid 3D printer in Europe, Skyprint 2, the facility enables Skyrora to undertake more of the manufacturing of its rocket parts in the UK.
The UK Government’s recently released Defence Space Strategy identifies launch as a core capability within the Government’s vision to position the domestic defence sector as a global actor in the space domain. Britain has historically relied on the US’s extensive launch heritage to provide assured launch capabilities to the nation’s defence sector.
With the recent announcement from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that Launch Collision Avoidance Analysis (LCOLA) will be carried out by the US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron, General Raymond’s visit also encourages contiguity between UK space players and the US to prioritise safe launch activity.
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.