Meet the British startups battling to take on Elon Musk’s SpaceX

On a blasted heath on Shetland’s northern Fethaland peninsula, a 6.5ft (2m) tall Skylark Nano rocket shot up to a height of just 3.7 miles. 

The launch was the work of Skyrora, an Edinburgh-based space firm hoping to capitalise on a new wave of interest in the space race on the British Isles.

“Our ambition is to actually be the British SpaceX,” Volodymyr Levykin, Skyrora chief executive, told the Telegraph after the launch.

But Skyrora’s launch could not have been more different to SpaceX’s lift-off on Monday when a 200ft Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Center.  The rocket carried four astronauts to the International Space Station on the first full-fledged taxi flight for Nasa by a private company.

Will British companies ever be able to match the success of SpaceX?

Elon Musk’s private space company was built from scratch, has skirted near bankruptcy and survived multiple rocket failures. Its technology, which utilises reusable rockets to cut the cost of going into space, has made it a favoured supplier of NASA and the US Department of Defence. It is now worth an estimated $100bn, according to Morgan Stanley, and employs 8,000 people.

The success of SpaceX shows building a 21st century space company from the ground up is possible. And in the US, it is not alone. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his own rocket company, Blue Orbit. Virgin Galactic, while part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has nearly all its operations in the States. So far, there have been 29 successful launches from US soil out of a total of 92 globally.

Britain, on the other hand, has to go back to 1971 for the last launch of a British made rocket – the Black Arrow – which blasted off from Australia.

Skyrora is not the only company looking at the UK for potential launch operations, however. US aerospace company Lockheed Martin is planning to build a spaceport on Unst in the Shetland Islands. UK company Orbex has secured approval for a spaceport in the Scottish Highlands. Virgin Orbit is planning to build Space Port Cornwall, a horizontal space launch port in Newquay. Virgin Orbit plans to launch satellites from Boeing 747 planes mid flight.

And launch is not the only measure of success. It will take decades to see if any of these ventures can challenge the likes of SpaceX, but the UK has other ambitions. 

“The UK has been a quiet success story for the last 20 years,” says Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency. “Traditional areas such as communications satellites are a big strength for us.”

Turnock notes that there is a wave of companies breaking through, in particular in the area of small satellites, such as Oxford’s Open Cosmos. “A few companies are really at the forefront” of small satellite development, he says, such as Surrey Satellites, Spire in Glasgow and Open Cosmos.

A report released on Monday from industry group Athena, made up of Serco, Lockheed Martin, CGI and Inmarsat, stated the case for a UK space industry that could deliver £500bn in wider economic benefits. The group argues the UK needs to invest in sat-nav capabilities, launch and manufacturing.

“The UK is at a critical point and the time to step forward and become a leading space nation is now,” according to Chris Rocks, of Serco.

Britain has already carved itself out several niches in space exploration and satellites. Glasgow is the world-leading centre for manufacturing small satellites, with companies such as US firm Spire hosting operations there. Overall, the UK’s space sector adds around £15bn of income in 2017, according to UKspace. It says the Government should be aiming to boost this to £40bn by 2030.

The Government is also looking at innovative space projects that the UK could take a lead on. On Tuesday, Amanda Solloway, the Space Minister, announced the UK’s participation in Clearspace-1 – dubbed “the Claw” – a project to remove space junk using satellites. “We plan to be at the forefront of efforts to track and remove this junk,” says Solloway.

Clearspace 1 will remove space junk

Credit: UKSA

Most notably, the Government has pumped $500m into OneWeb, a company building a 650-satellite network for broadband and satellite navigation. This constellation, which will compete with Musk’s Starlink, is among the leading ventures planning to provide remote broadband coverage using satellites. The hope is its technology could also be used as a back-up to GPS.

“[The deal] is a fabulous signal,” says Mark Boggett, of space venture capital fund Seraphim. “It is supporting an innovative new market and getting behind one of the leaders in a public way. It sends out a message of support to the sector post-Brexit and post-Covid.”

UK start-ups have also been quietly breaking ground in computing technologies for space, such as Arqit, a start-up designing quantum encryption technologies for space, and Nu Quantum, a photon detection system for space communications. Isotropic Systems, which designs efficient ground satellite terminals, has raised $14m from Boeing. 

“Much of the press goes to OneWeb, SpaceX or Amazon,” says Boggett. “But under the tip of the iceberg there is a massive amount of stuff going on. And it is not just about the US.”

This year to date, there has been $627m invested in European space companies, versus $3.7bn in the US. 

That is excluding the $1bn invested in OneWeb, a deal due to formally close this week.

In fact, as data from Seraphim points out, while Europe does not have its own SpaceX, OneWeb, an Anglo-US company, is second only to it in total funding raised. But OneWeb faces big challenges. It collapsed into bankruptcy in March after funding fell through. It was rescued by the UK Government, but will require more than £1bn to get its satellite network into space next year.

OneWeb _ Low orbit Satellites

What remains to be seen is whether the UK Government, which has just appointed a new Space Council led by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, will capitalise on the renewed interest in the space sector and jump into the tier of nations with launch capacity, such as France and Japan. 

Senior industry insiders point out that, as well as funding, the Government should become a buyer of space kit from UK companies, as the US Department of Defence has done for many years with US firms. “The idea here is learning about what has gone on in the US and SpaceX,” an industry source says.

According to Boggett, the UK has the potential to become a leader in constellations, rivaling Musk’s Starlink plans. He says: “The UK is third in the world by number of companies that have a space constellation. It massively punches above its weight.”

You may also like...