A calculated countdown to space

The ‘UK Pathfinder Launch’ project will use an ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket to vertically launch satellites into orbit. Image: Lockheed Martin / SaxaVord Space Port
The ‘UK Pathfinder Launch’ project will use an ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket to vertically launch satellites into orbit. Image: Lockheed Martin / SaxaVord Space Port

In this Q&A session Nik Smith, regional director space, UK and Europe for Lockheed Martin, discusses with Ed Hill the company’s involvement in the UK space sector and the development of the new SaxaVord Spaceport on the Isle of Unst, Shetland, intended for the vertical launch of small satellites into low earth orbit.

The announcement that planning permission has been granted for a space port at SaxaVord in the Shetland Islands means that construction work can now begin on developing a launch facility intended for transporting CubeSats and smallsats vertically into orbit. This latest development is part of an ongoing strategy that Lockheed Martin UK has in developing new opportunities in the UK space industry. Alongside its partners at the US Space Agency, ABL Space Systems and SaxaVord Spaceport, the company will be operating the ‘UK Pathfinder Launch’ project using ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket.

How has Lockheed Martin’s involvement in the UK space sector evolved and how it will it develop in the future?

Lockheed Martin’s footprint in the UK is changing. Aligned with the National Space Strategy, the company has identified a number of key opportunities to support the UK’s aspirations in space, leaning on our unparalleled heritage in launch, satellite production, space security, deep space exploration and cyber defence and because of this we are investing in the sector. An example of this is a leading role to deliver the UK’s first vertical satellite launch to orbit, known as the UK’s Pathfinder Launch, in partnership with the UK Space agency, and our other partners. This shows our commitment to helping the UK in meeting its ambitions to grow the UK space sector which supports security and prosperity and improve national and local skills and economies.

How do you see your role with other stakeholders in the space industry such as the UK and Scottish Governments, Catapult centres etc.?

 We have a long-standing and valuable relationship with the UK, having operated here for nearly 80 years and in order to support the UK’s space aspirations, we are working with a number of government agencies and bodies, academic institutions and space clusters to deliver growth in the market. Our primary role is an integrator and enabler so working alongside, and with these partners, is key to achieving that success.

How has the development of CubeSats and smallsats impacted the space industry? Why do they offer so much commercial potential for the UK space sector?

CubeSats and smallsats have been part of the space sector for many years; much of that innovation has been led by the UK. However, as we see that technology mature, it’s clear it will continue to be a significant part of the space landscape. Consequently, we are focusing our efforts on supporting the UK stay at the forefront of CubeSat and small satellite launch for decades to come. The next generation of CubeSats and small satellites are incredibly capable and have considerable potential to deliver a range of space missions including science, climate monitoring, earth observation and security. Many of the future small satellite constellations will improve our access to data and communications delivering those services that we are becoming reliant on as well as enhancing the way we see ourselves and interact with our planet.

 What are the challenges of developing smaller size launch vehicles and satellites?

One of the biggest challenges of small launch systems is to be affordable so advanced manufacturing techniques will be a key component of most future space technologies, including launch vehicles. The CubeSat and small satellite market is very price sensitive with the cost of launch being the difference between success and failure for many new entrants.

Consequently, any future UK launch service needs to be globally competitive on price with all partners including the spaceport operators, launch services providers and government, doing all they can to keep operating costs low. However, there are some distinct advantages to small launches over large rockets. Firstly, they can be launched more frequently and on a more flexible schedule, so CubeSat and small satellite developers can get their satellites into space faster and in a way that is responsive to their needs.

Secondly, the CubeSat or small satellite operator will be the priority on a smaller launch. When launching as a ‘rideshare’ on a larger rocket, many small companies’ needs are secondary to the primary payload.

The proposed launch site on the Lamba Ness peninsular on the Island of Unst

An example of how we are prioritising customer needs is with the -innovative Small Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle (SL-OMV) technology that our partner Moog is developing in Reading, which means that up to six CubeSats can be placed into an optimum orbit on every launch.

You have partnered with US-based ABL Space Systems to provide the first RS1 Pathfinder rocket. What will UK involvement in this, and future launch vehicles be?

ABL Space Systems’ flexible, integrated launch system, GS0 and RS1 rocket, allow for a rapid and cost-effective deployment with outstanding launch performance, making the technology ideal for delivering the Pathfinder project goals, especially as it evolves and changes.

Partnering with international companies gives this effort a broader reach to future customers and applications, which opens up new economic opportunities for the UK. In this challenging time, it’s more important than ever that we support technologies that will help create jobs and economic growth, enabling people and businesses across the country to benefit from the commercial opportunities offered by the UK’s growing space sector and the many firms throughout its supply chain.

In terms of the growth in the space industry, what potential is there in the UK for this to become a significant industry and employer?

The UK space sector has enjoyed good growth for many years and a key part of that is identifying which capabilities and technologies are worthy of government investment to deliver growth through prosperity and attract inward investment. The strategy recognises the role that competitive government procurements have in delivering.

The UK launch programme is a great example of that, with industry and government partnering and an ambitious strategic programme that is already proving to be an engine for growth, attracting investment and supporting new UK space companies.

The SaxaVord Spaceport will eventually create circa 140 jobs on Unst and inject at least £4.9m per annum into the island’s economy. It will provide a further 70 jobs throughout Shetland, adding a further £2.9m in gross value to the economy.

The success of this approach is also demonstrated by the number of projected launch sites. Multiple spaceports will help enhance the competitiveness of the UK’s launch offer by attracting and catering for a rich and diverse market – as well as acting as a catalyst to drive growth across the sector.

Nik Smith, regional director space, UK and Europe for Lockheed Martin

How sustainable will this industry be and what considerations have to be made about its impact on the environment?

All space companies are committed to sustainability and Lockheed Martin is no exception. Firstly, it is important to recognise that satellites play a vital role in observing and gathering data on climate change, helping to advance scientific understanding to inform the necessary actions to address this global challenge and make the world a much better place for us to live in; over 50% of the current climate security markers are monitored from space and so are over 90% of the UN’s sustainability goals.

It is also important to make sure that the launches themselves are done in a manner that limits the impact on our environment. This will also be a key factor when considering our planning and licence applications.

Our spaceflight regulations reflect our environmental commitments, where the Space Industry Act 2018 contains a requirement for potential launch operator or spaceport licensees to produce an assessment of the environmental effects of their proposed spaceflight activities.

Tell me more about your facilities at Harwell? What role will they play in Lockheed Martin UK developing its space business?

Our programme headquarters are based at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

Its Space Cluster is a gateway to the UK space sector and benefits from 1,000 people working from 100 organisations including leading public space companies, European Space Agency, RAL Space, Satellite Applications Catapult and UK Space Agency. Placed here is the satellite integration lab and mission operations centre, used for space launches that will be controlling launches from the SaxaVord spaceport and is also available for others in the space industry to lease.

Harwell truly enables us to explore opportunities in the space sector as well as develop partnership opportunities with UK businesses and universities to support the UK’s goal of maintaining and growing its national capabilities in space.



Lockheed Martin

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