The teary, disconsolate expression on the face of Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, spoke a thousand words. Britain’s effort to become part of a global space race looked to have suffered a huge setback when Virgin Orbit’s rocket malfunctioned at 100 miles above Earth, sending nine advanced satellites into oblivion and generating the kind of disaster headlines best left to Hollywood.
There were immediate suggestions that Britain’s unpredictable windswept climate made it unsuitable for rocket launches.
This was accompanied by a dollop of schadenfreude that it was a costly embarrassment for Richard Branson, the country’s most adventurous entrepreneur.
Out of this world: There have been suggestions that Britain’s unpredictable windswept climate made it unsuitable for rocket launches
Now that the dismay has subsided and cosmic enthusiasts on the runway at Newquay have dispersed, it is worth reflecting that, nearly 54 years after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, rocket technology still struggles with reliability. The explosion in 1986 of the Challenger space shuttle just 73 seconds into its flight, killing the seven astronauts aboard, is seared in my memory as a US correspondent at the time.
Few lives have been lost since then, but last year alone there were at least a dozen launch failures. These included problems for the Astra rocket at Cape Canaveral, a debacle for India’s first launch, the failure of Japan’s Epsilon rocket and misadventures for Europe’s Vega rocket. Scores of satellites have fallen to Earth. The history of market leader Elon Musk’s £110billion SpaceX is littered with malfunctions.
In spite of Newquay’s frustration, it is far from over for British spaceports. Branson is actively pursuing another orbit attempt from the UK this year. And Germany’s SaxaVord has just signed a multi-year deal for a new spaceport in the Shetland Islands.
Britain is not alone in its effort to conquer the heavens. Among would-be space explorers, the Chinese have an ambition to colonise the Moon and harvest precious metals.
Whether the UK is successful in establishing a network of spaceports or not, it is better placed than many of its rivals to provide much of the advanced satellite and other technology that the space industry requires. The UK’s leading defence giant BAE Systems is heavily involved in the race to the stars.
And a brilliant young British mechanical engineer, Abbie Hutty, who is now lead systems engineer at Ispace in Luxembourg, previously led the team at Airbus in the UK developing the robots designed to collect samples from Mars.
The space industry supports nearly 50,000 jobs in the UK with 3,000 highly skilled roles added in recent years. It generated £16.4billion of income in 2020, a third of which goes to export. More satellites are built in the UK than any where other than California. But British prowess has attracted the attention of predators. The high value placed on UK skills in space is symbolised by the £10billion pursuit of satellite pioneer Inmarsat by American competitor Viasat.
Emotional: Melissa Thorpe after the setback
Inmarsat creates technology that lets aircraft communicate with each other online and passengers go online in-flight. To get the deal done, Viasat has made all manner of pledges to maintain a strong presence in the UK, support research and development and improve training for young people wanting to become involved in space.
The deal won the support of former Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, but is being examined by the Competition and Markets Authority.
Anyone looking for insight into the depth and high value of the UK’s aerospace industries needs to look no further than the payload of the failed Virgin Orbit mission.
Aboard the rocket carried by ‘Cosmic Girl’, the Virgin Orbit 747 which safely returned to Earth after a successful first stage, were nine small satellites representing a variety of government and private sector projects across the globe including the UK, US, Oman, Poland and the European Space Agency.
Among the saddest losses was the first satellite from Cardiff-based start-up Space Forge, which aimed to improve in-space manufacturing. Also lost was a test navigation satellite from Belgium’s Rhea to track data from the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult, which offers a wide range of navigation services.
UK pioneer: Virgin’s failure will not deter the likes of Abbie Hutty
Ambition to explore the cosmos has taken hold in some of the most unlikely of UK locations. In a business park in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Metalysis has spent two decades extracting rare metals from rocks. Its technology could be invaluable when humans return to the Moon and the Rover mission eventually makes its way to Mars.
Much of the criticism of Britain from Labour and the Left is that the UK is losing ground to its competitors and its low value economy is slow to innovate and change.
Space defies that analysis. In spite of the setbacks, it remains one of the UK’s most productive sectors generating ‘gross value added’ of £133,233 per worker – three times the national average.
It makes it all the more vital that the ambition for a network of spaceports is not abandoned because of the failure of the launch and that valuable British satellite expertise, such as that of Inmarsat, is not sacrificed on the altar of Mammon.
Stellar returns? Keep your feet on the ground!
Investing in ‘space’ lies at the high end of the investment risk spectrum.
You could lose your proverbial shirt. Or, if you’re patient and play the long game, you could (and I stress the word ‘could’) come up trumps. But prepare for buffeting along the way – akin to the failure last week of Virgin Orbit’s UK satellite launch.
There are two avenues into this specialist investment area. The first is to buy into a fund that invests in companies involved in the sector. The second is to purchase shares in established businesses that are providing the components used in everything from rockets to satellites.
Stock market-listed investment trust Seraphim Space is the purest ‘space’ play.
This fund, with assets of £250million, is invested in a number of unquoted companies involved in space technology – the likes of Finnish micro-satellite manufacturer ICEYE and US-based HawkEye 360 – a developer of satellites able to identify the source of radio frequency emissions (key, for example, in navigation). Unquoted businesses can make big gains for funds when – and if – they come to market, or they are bought by a rival. They can also fail.
With the shares down 56 per cent since the trust’s launch, Seraphim could be seen as a bargain buy. But it’s risky and speculative.
Investment fund Procure Space – which, like Seraphim, is listed in the UK – is another route in, with a portfolio of companies involved in space-related industries.
Its biggest holding is US satellite manufacturer Maxar Technologies, which was recently bought by private equity company Advent International, generating profits for the fund. Over the past year, the fund’s shares are down 12 per cent – but they are up nearly 7 per cent over the last month.
Unlike Seraphim, Procure has stakes in listed global companies – the likes of Airbus, Comcast and Honeywell – all involved in developing space technology.
And maybe, buying shares in these established businesses is a more sensible route for many ‘space’ investors to take – all can be bought via investment platforms.
In the UK, listed companies QinetiQ and BAE Systems also fit the ‘space’ bill.
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