The UK could carry out its first vertical satellite launch by the end of the year, the government said.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that, for now, the focus was currently on a horizontal launch, which it is hoped will take place this summer from Newquay, Cornwall, in the west of England. It will be the first launch from UK soil.
But Mr Kwarteng told the UK’s Science and Technology parliamentary committee that the hope was that a vertical launch from a site in Scotland could happen months after the Cornwall mission.
“We're focused on the horizontal launch, and we're very hopeful, a few months afterwards maybe, we could get the vertical launch in Shetland,” Mr Kwarteng said.
A horizontal launch is when a modified plane takes off from a runway with a rocket attached which — once away from urban areas — detaches and then makes its way to space.
“Horizontal launches save on fuel costs, as the plane does most of the work getting the rocket into the upper atmosphere, but they’re limited by how much the plane can carry so these types of launches tend to only be feasible for very small satellites,” said the UK’s National Space Centre.
Spaceport Cornwall will use an existing airport runway and is expected to partner Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit for the launch.
A vertical launch is the more commonly known procedure, when a rocket lifts straight up.
Industry giant Lockheed Martin has based its satellite launch operations at the Shetland Space Centre.
“I think going forward, it’s not just in Cornwall. We've got Shetland, we've got Snowdonia. We've got a number of other places where we can launch satellites. But my immediate focus is on this summer,” said Mr Kwarteng.
He also highlighted the potential “dual capability” for the space industry.
“There's a civil capability, which we're responsible for, and there's a defence capability. And we're trying to integrate the two and work out how we can synergise both. That means we’re speaking to the Ministry of Defence,” he said.
The UK has sought to position itself as a leader in the European space market and last September published its industry strategy for the future.
The government has said its spaceports “will help to cement the UK’s role as a science superpower and help unleash a wave of innovation across the country”.
But that strategy was criticised for being too vague, which the government explained was due to the imminent announcement of last October’s comprehensive spending review.
“[The space strategy] was widely welcomed, but if it's attracted some criticism, it's that it is perhaps lacking in some specifics in terms of an implementation plan,” Greg Clark, the chairman of the parliamentary committee and a former cabinet minister, told Mr Kwarteng.
“It's much harder to have granular specifics that need to be costed in terms of the timing ahead of the October (2021) comprehensive spending review,” Mr Kwarteng said.
He told the committee that as a result of October's spending review, his department had received a good allocation for research and development that could be used to drive the space strategy.
According to the UK Space Agency, the global space economy was worth £270 billion ($366.73bn) in 2019 but will rise to £490bn by 2030.
The industry already directly employs more than 45,000 people in the UK.