Scotland’s answer to Elon Musk’s SpaceX is taking shape – and it’s only a few months away from launching | Science & Tech News

A Scottish company hoping to take on SpaceX is just months away from launching a rocket in the Shetland Islands.

Mission success would deploy the first satellite in orbit from UK soil – and put the country firmly in the space race.

The company, called Skyrora, has already successfully fired one of the engines in a disused quarry.

And the rocket itself is taking shape in a factory outside Glasgow.

The boss, Volodymyr Levykin, used to work in IT, just like Elon Musk.

“We are the newcomers,” Mr Levykin told Sky News.

“Historically, the UK has been reliant on the United States and the European Space Agency for launch.

“But those rockets were optimised for the very large satellites. Times have changed and satellites are getting smaller.

“That’s the reason for the smaller rockets, exactly the size Skyrora is trying to build.”

Skyrora boss Volodymyr Levykin
Image:
Skyrora boss Volodymyr Levykin

Skyrora

It’s made up of 10,000 components – a lot can go wrong

Skyrora XL, as it’s called, is currently a kit of parts laid out on a factory floor.

When assembled it will be 22 metres tall, with nine engines fuelled by kerosene made from unrecyclable plastic.

It’ll be capable of lifting a 300kg payload and putting it into orbit up to 600 miles above the Earth.

But with 10,000 components there is a lot that can go wrong, sometimes in the most unexpected way.

Virgin Orbit’s attempt to reach space from Cornwall earlier this year was scuppered by a dislodged fuel filter.

“It’s hard. That’s why it’s called rocket science,” said Mr Levykin.

“We will have a probability of success (for the first launch) in the range of 60%.

“We will do everything possible to increase it. But we also need to accept the fact that this is the first launch and failure is possible.”

Around 100,000 satellites are expected to be in orbit by 2030.

The UK wants to launch 2,000 of them.

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Skyrora

Skyrora has work to do to compete with Musk on cost

Geography is in its favour.

The north of Scotland has a clear launch trajectory to put satellites in an orbit that takes them over the poles.

But it’s a competitive business.

Skyrora is 3D-printing its engines and has plans to reuse sections of rocket that will parachute back to Earth.

That should keep launch costs down to around £28,000 a kilogram. It’s a third less than the cost of launching on the Space Shuttle.

But SpaceX can do it for just £2,000 a kilo.

Skyrora admits it can’t compete on cost.

Instead, it aims for a bespoke service.

Mr Levykin explained: “With SpaceX, you need to team up with 100 other satellites.

“It’s like a bus. The bus is only profitable when it is full of passengers.

“Then you need to get out at a certain bus stop, and you need to walk to your final location.

“Skyrora is trying to provide the service of a taxi – a dedicated launch vehicle for dedicated customers to bring you to an exact location in orbit and just you.”

Skyrora is 3D printing elements of its rocket
Image:
Skyrora is 3D-printing elements of its rocket

Skyrora

Britain has launched a satellite into orbit before.

In 1971, Black Arrow launched the Prospero probe from the Australian outback.

But the programme was so expensive it was immediately cancelled.

The rebirth of Britain’s rocket industry is being closely watched by the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

It has given funding to Skyrora and Orbex, another Scottish rocket builder.

“What we’ve seen is a real maturing of the technology,” said Matt Archer, the Agency’s director of launch.

“It’s still high-tech and still very complex and comes with risk.

“But we’ve seen a change in overall cost to take things to orbit.”

The UKSA was stung by the fallout from the Virgin Orbit failure. But it says the UK is in the rocket business for the long haul.

“The reward is there and people will keep trying. We will see successful launches in the UK.”