UK chief hails test-firing of rockets at Scottish spaceport as ‘big moment’

The successful test-firing of a rocket on the Shetland Islands is a “big moment” ahead of the first space launch due later this year, the head of the UK Space Agency has said.

Dr Paul Bate praised the “hot test” of a German rocket’s first stage at SaxaVord Spaceport last week, saying the UK could become the leading country in Europe for small satellite launches.

Dr Bate also said there should be no “race to the bottom” in regulation of the industry, after concerns were voiced that there is too much red tape involved in launching from the UK.

Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) test-fired four Helix engines from the first stage of their rocket, One, sitting atop a 12-metre high launch stool.

The rocket stage was transported by sea and road from Germany to SaxaVord at the northernmost tip of the UK.

Another space launch is expected to take place next year from the Sutherland Spaceport on the Scottish mainland, Dr Bate said, with this one being a rocket from UK company Orbex.

The head of the UK Space Agency spoke to the PA news agency at the Space Propulsion Conference, which is taking place in Glasgow, bringing together organisations involved in rocketry and spacecraft from around the word.

Scotland’s “wonderful geography” means it is an ideal location for launches to polar and sun-synchronous orbits, he said, with several sites hoping to host vertical or horizontal launches in future.

Amid strong global demand for small satellite launches, many countries and private companies are exploring new ways of reaching space.

Dr Bate said: “RFA are hitting their milestones – they’re at a stage where they’re testing four of their engines now on their first stage and it’s all worked according to plan.

“A hot fire is a big moment, a lot can go wrong – early indications are that it’s been a very successful test.”

RFA test-fired four engines on their rocket at SaxaVord (RFA/PA)
RFA test-fired four engines on their rocket at SaxaVord (RFA/PA)

He said he hoped the UK could become “the leading launch nation for small satellites in Europe”.

Last year, a House of Commons select committee recommended improving the licensing system for satellite launches, following complaints it was too bureaucratic.

Dr Bate said licensing times are being sped up, adding: “It will help nobody globally if there is a race to the bottom on regulation.

“That will result in accidents and it will result in much more debris in orbit than we would want.

“That’s why we take a regulatory leadership position where we’ll make our regulations agile as a country, but we set out very clearly what the expectations are of people who are coming to launch in the UK.”

RFA said their test-firing had been a full success.

Co-founder and chief operating officer, Dr Stefan Brieschenk, said: “Over the next few weeks, we will install four more Helix engines on the first stage to complete the nine-engine cluster.

“Once these have completed the check-out tests, the next hot fire with nine Helix engines will take place after the end of the bird-breeding season in SaxaVord.”

He said if further testing campaigns are successful, the full three-stage rocket will be “stacked” at SaxaVord in August.