UK's first ever space launch: What can Cornwall project achieve?

Welsh satellite firm tells The National of plans to manufacture alloys in space then parachute them down to factory doorstep

The mission involves a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, which will take off horizontally from the new launch site.
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Barring a last-minute hold-up, Britain will belatedly enter the space race on Monday evening with the first ever launch of a satellite from its shores.

LauncherOne is intended to herald the start of a new development for the UK’s space ambitions to send scores of satellites into low Earth orbit every year.

The opening of Spaceport Cornwall has come at a critical time after the closure of Kazakhstan following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which prompted sanctions and security concerns.

The importance of its global positioning in space is marked by the two UK Ministry of Defence and two Pentagon satellites in the first 400kg payload for the launch.

When the wheels of Virgin’s converted 747 Cosmic Girl leave Cornish soil just after 10pm GMT on Monday it will mean Britain “having a sovereign launch capability for the first time”, Spaceport boss Melissa Thorpe told The National. “This is will be not just a hub for Britain but for Europe and beyond,” she said.

As a world-leading satellite manufacturer, launching them from Cornwall will enable Britain to “capture that market opportunity”, especially with Kazakhstan now off limits, she added.

The emergence of the UK as a space power will be further enhanced when Britain’s first-ever vertical launch rockets blast off from the Shetland Islands this summer carrying another satellite payload.

Midnight launch

Shortly before midnight on Monday, Cosmic Girl, with LauncherOne under its left wing, is due to carry the first seven British-launched satellites into the Cornish sky.

It will fly to 35,000ft then somewhere off the southern coast of Ireland it will deploy LauncherOne, a 21-metre rocket which will accelerate to 8,000mph and soar to 600,000ft where in the early hours of Tuesday it will deploy the seven satellites into orbit.

Among them will be Oman’s first satellite Aman, a CubeSat that will be used for Earth environmental surveillance.

Space Forge

It will also deploy Wales’ first satellite that could well change the future of industrial manufacture.

In an interview with The National, the developers from Space Forge have outlined a unique plan, that if it comes off could revolutionise the development of metals and create a booming industry in space.

On board LauncherOne will be their test satellite ForgeStar-0 which will be trialling a new method of manufacturing alloys in space before sending them back to a precise location on Earth.

A Welsh flag hangs over a model of Space Forge's prototype satellite at its workshop in Cardiff. Tim Stickings/The National

The vision is to set up a robotic factory using space’s exceptionally clean environment to produce sought-after metals and then “parachute” them down precisely on to the factory doorstep anywhere on Earth.

Space Forge plan is to allow humanity to “make things in space and leave Earth as a nice garden”.

Mary Poppins descent

The ForgeStar-0 mission objective is to send a satellite the size of a microwave into orbit and then allow it to descend back to Earth using what company founder Joshua Western describes as the “Mary Poppins method”, with an umbrella-like device.

Currently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets are the only vehicles capable of returning from space but SpaceForge has developed its own re-entry technology, which is designed to be fully reusable.

The initial landing device, named Pridwen after the magical shield of the King Arthur legend, will come down in the sea off Wales, but soon it will descend on to land.

On board LauncherOne will be test satellite ForgeStar-0. Photo: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.

“The best way to describe how it works is like Mary Poppins from space,” said Mr Western. “That allows us to float from orbit down to the ground while preserving the fragility of the materials that we've produced.”

But the crucial, smart aspect is that once the technology has developed, the company can send specific orders straight to whoever ordered them without Earth-based transport costs.

“The way in which our technology works, means that we can deploy to lots of different countries and markets so that we can support the manufacturers in those regions with what we’ve made,” he said.

“That's an order of magnitude improvement for this technology, which opens up far more landing locations for us.”

Billion alloys

If the ForgeStar-0 mission is successful then the next satellite will be launched to make a start on alloy manufacture, initially with a robotic arm and conveyer belt on the production line.

Although it will be some way away from having the complex robotics seen in a car production, SpaceForge plan to benefit from the unique space environment.

Andrew Bacon, right, and Space Forge co-founder Josh Western signed a launch agreement with Virgin Orbit in March. Photo: Virgin Orbit

“That is principally weightlessness, a hydrogen vacuum, and plus or minus 150°C,” said Mr Western. “That creates a much better manufacturing environment for almost any industrial process to the point where you can create more than a billion new alloy combinations across the periodic table.”

Space Forge plans to target next-generation semiconductors by producing the material for computer chips and bringing them back to Earth, which has the added benefit of reducing factory energy consumption by 50 per cent.

Examples of alloys involved would be platinum, lithium and cobalt or graphene, that can be mixed into composites.

Dirty humans

Another key element to manufacture in space is the absence of humans with their dirt and errors, said Mr Western, who started the company with Andrew Bacon with £600,000 six years ago.

“We joke that the first hidden benefit of going to space is to get away from all the people,” he said.

“Humans tend to be the worst thing in every manufacturing loop because we make mistakes. When it comes to something like semiconductor production, you need such an incredibly clean environment that a human is one of the last things you want.”

Tears at midnight

When Mr Western left university in 2014 he openly admits that he had no idea Britain had a space programme. But he was soon gripped by the idea.

Starting from the humble roots of a small garage in Bristol just before the pandemic hit they began designing and building a satellite from scratch.

Since then Space Forge has turned into a bustling Cardiff company of 50 staff from 19 different countries who are adding to Britain’s largely unrecognised contribution to space.

Spaceport Cornwall prepares for launch — in pictures

“This is the moment that firmly puts space back into back into mind of the UK, starting a conversation on how much we're participating in it,” Mr Western said.

“We don't talk enough about the UK’s really rich history of science missions and space programmes we have contributed to. Part of Hubble telescope was built in Bristol and parts of the James Webb Space Telescope were made in Cardiff.”

Monday’s inaugural launch provides the opportunity for Britain to “not only talk about it as a one-off but to demonstrate just how much we do all of the time in space”.

The SpaceForge founder said he would “probably be crying” when Cosmic Girl lifts off. “For us it's the culmination of so many years of work,” he said. “To see ForgeStar-0 go up will be for us nothing short of profound.”

Updated: January 09, 2023, 3:07 PM
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