‘Seismic change’ needed if ‘toxic’ UK wants to launch satellites again

Daily news Technology

MPs have been told to spend money on hospitals instead of launching satellites following the “absolute disaster” of Virgin Orbit’s mission from Cornwall.

Britain is seen as “toxic” after that failure and only a “seismic shift” to its regulatory procedure – overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – will make it attractive for future missions, parliament’s science and technology committee has been told.

Space Forge lost a satellite in the failed Virgin Orbit ‘Start Me up’ launch in January and said it would not do its next launch from the UK, even if it was “for free”.

Senior figures from the Cardiff based company told the committee that delays by the regulator turned its six-month lead over competitors into a six-month lag.

Non-executive director Patrick McCall told MPs on Wednesday “the CAA is taking a different approach to risk,” compared to regulators in other countries which are more efficient in time and process.

“But I think unless there is, without wanting to be too dramatic, a seismic change in that approach, the UK is not going to be competitive from a launch perspective.

“I think the conclusion I’ve reached is right now it’s not a good use of money, because our regulatory framework is not competitive.”

McCall added that the UK should spend its money on hospitals rather than satellite launches.

Space Forge is based in Cardiff and is trying to become the world’s first company to successfully return a satellite from space. It aims to create “revolutionary products, for the benefit of humanity” by exploiting the benefits of space – ambient pressure, microgravity and near zero temperatures – to “manufacture new materials for a new Earth age.”

Space Forge chief executive Joshua Western told the committee the UK’s regulatory process is expensive and time consuming, with a feeling of a lack of engagement by UK authorities in the space program.

“Quite frankly it costs us more to licence our satellite for launch than it did to launch it,” said Western.

Chairman of the science and technology committee Greg Clark said the UK’s showpiece satellite launch had been a disaster and had turned “toxic for a privately funded launch”.

Clark said the “devastating” evidence given by Space Forge shows regulation is putting the UK “behind the rest of the world”.

“We had the first attempted launch but the result is that you as an investor in space are saying there is no chance of investors supporting another launch from the UK with the current regulator conditions.”

CAA chairperson Sir Stephen Hillier said changes can be made to the regulatory procedure to speed things up but safety is “not negotiable”.

CAA director for space regulation Tim Johnson told the committee: “Helping develop a safe and thriving UK space industry is a key part of our work as the space regulator.”

Virgin Orbit said January’s mission from Spaceport Cornwall failed because of a dislodged fuel filter. A total of nine satellites ended up in the Atlantic Ocean rather than orbit. Virgin Orbit has ended its contract with Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay airport.

Head of Spaceport Cornwall Melissa Quinn said the “small regional airport” is “licensed and ready” for a second launch of satellites.

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