David Cameron’s plan for a UK spaceport will face epic legal battles.
Actually, the UK already has a spaceport; one of the best in the world when it comes to putting hardware safely and profitably into space. It is ours by virtue of the UK’s membership of the European Space Agency, an intergovernmental (not EU) body with 22 member states.
The snag is that the Centre Spatial Guyanais is in French Guiana, one of those oddly shaped offshore bits of the eurozone map which puzzle Britons who scrutinise euro banknotes.
There’s a very good reason for siting a spaceport in the steamy jungles of South America, just five degrees north of the equator. Up to now, most commercial space launches have involved putting satellites into an east-heading orbit over the equator where they hover in a fixed position over the rotating earth to relay TV and phone signals.
In this business, the closer you are to the equator the bigger the boost you get from the earth’s rotation and the less fuel you need to get a given weight into orbit. A Soyuz rocket launched from Guiana can carry a tonne more payload into telecoms satellite orbit than one launched from the old Soviet space base in Kazakhstan.
And, because rockets sometimes blow up, you want the territory downrange of a launch to be as uninhabited as possible; preferably an ocean. This is why the US’s spaceport is in Florida and Japan’s on the subtropical island of Tanegashima. (Authoritarian states are less worried about being sued if bits of rocket fall through ceilings but are more concerned with secrecy, which is why China and Russia launch from remote desert sites.)
By these criteria, the UK is one of the worst places in the world to build a spaceport. A high-latitude site lying to the west of a densely populated landmass has about as much comparative advantage for launching rockets as it does for banana growing.
Granted, the plan floated in the Queen’s speech today is not for a launch pad for conventional vertical take-off rockets, but rather for Dan Dare-style ‘sub-orbital horizontal spaceplane operations’. These might one day include an air-breathing rocket plane capable of reaching Australia in four hours, as well as Virgin Galactic-style joyriding and, more realistically, pilotless craft from which satellites could be boosted into orbit more cheaply than by conventional rockets.
In this market, reasonable closeness to customers may be more important than an equatorial site and there is little disadvantage to a spaceplane taking off westward over the sea. So the government's apparently favoured option of siting the spaceport at Newquay Cornwall Airport makes a kind of sense.
Certainly, the airport’s cold-war era 2,700-metre runway is seriously under-used and the local economy could use the hi-tech boost. UK leadership in the space industry will also be good news for white-collar sectors such as insurance, finance and, yes, the law.
But as much as my inner Dan Dare would love this to happen, I cannot be optimistic. This is a country that has for decades bottled out of building a decent hub airport for subsonic airliners, never mind spaceplanes. What chance a venture which will have a noticeable environmental impact (though it will be many years before space launches are a significant source of greenhouse emissions) for the apparent benefit of a few billionaires? I can see the 'No space for spaceport' placards now.
When the epic legal challenges begin, with arguments that will include the British Isles' inherent unsuitability as a spaceport location, remember you read about them here first.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor