Could Britain win the new space race by the end of this year? | Science and technology news


No orbital space mission has ever been launched by the countries of modern Europe, but a proliferation of private rocket companies means that is likely to change very soon.

The benefits to the winner could be enormous. At a time when investment in the space business is expected to grow at more than 5% per year, establishing the continent’s first operational spaceport could win a lot of business.

Numerous competing spaceports are being developed across Europe and even the UK, with a possible launch from Shetland later this year among contenders for the first to cross the border – backed by a Ukrainian-born entrepreneur and about 80 employees in the country.

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Born in Ukraine, Volodymyr Levykin may be on the verge of launching the first-ever space rocket from British soil

The UK Space Agency says it has committed more than £40m to industry to develop Britain’s space capabilities.

This includes funds given to Lockheed Martin, some of which will help the company establish launch operations The SaxaVord Cosmodrome in the Shetland Islands.

Skyrora, an Edinburgh-based company founded and run by Ukrainian-born Briton Volodymyr Levykin, hopes to launch Britain’s and Europe’s first orbital mission from there later this year.

Skyrora aims to launch a satellite weighing between 315kg and 500kg into sun-synchronous polar orbit, meaning the satellite would fly over the poles and then every point on Earth at the same local time of day – ideal for imaging satellites.

Mr Levykin, who “moved to the country about 13 years ago”, told Sky News the Shetland site is “one of the best in Europe” because it offers a clean runway without crossing foreign territory.

It’s not “perfect” due to weather conditions, he conceded with a wistful reference to Florida, but it’s no worse than competing locations in Alaska, Norway and Sweden.

“Right now there are a number of countries in play, in what we call the new space race,” he said.

Skyrora has three competitors in Germany that are “moving along fairly quickly, are very well funded and have good government support,” Mr Levykin said.

But for now, Britain is the most advanced. Last year, the government introduced regulations for the space industry, licensing spaceport operations and allowing launches.

“If we are first and win the new space race, we have a very good chance of actually becoming the space center of Europe,” added Mr. Levykin.

Skyrora is based in Edinburgh but employs half of its staff in Ukraine
Skyrora is based in Edinburgh but employs half of its staff in Ukraine

About half of the company’s 160 employees work in Dnipro, Ukraine, formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk in USSR times and the heart of the Soviet Union’s missile program.

Skyrora’s manufacturing and testing facilities are all based in the UK – with one for testing engines, which opened earlier this week at a disused quarry – but staff in Ukraine help develop techniques, alongside back-office operations, supply chain and accounting work.

The largest rocket engine test facility in Britain has opened
Skyrora opened Britain’s largest testing facility for rocket engines earlier this week

“The war has had a tremendous impact on everyone. There are no exceptions,” Mr Levykin said, with some staff forced to flee due to the invasion.

It was mostly female employees and those with three or more children who left Dnipro to work in western Ukraine, he said, although the majority of employees stayed.

Martial law has also added some additional difficulties.

“People have understood that the best way to deal with stress is to work and work hard, especially while it’s still possible to work while it’s still safe.”

The facility in Scotland will be able to test rocket engines
The facility is located in a disused quarry in Midlothian

Keeping the work going is essential to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat, Mr Levykin said, noting how valuable satellite imagery is in providing geospatial information on Russian military movements in Ukraine.

“It’s just my theory that the new space satellite companies are playing a big part in this war. The new generation of private space companies focused on Earth observations – with the primary goal of helping to combat climate change – these data are indeed widely used to analyze the situation in the war zone.”

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