Of all the headlines this week about Cornwall’s potential to host the UK’s first commercial spaceport, my favourite has got to be from the Sun: ‘Blast ooh-arf! UK’s first Spaceport may be in Newquay’.
It’s great to see our part of the world attracting attention from far and wide, and the excitement that space travel engenders at home and abroad. ‘Will rockets frighten the surfers?’ asked the BBC Daily Politics show of former Chancellor Lord Lamont on Monday.
But rural cider-drinkers and surfer stereotypes aside, Cornwall’s ambition to host the UK’s first commercial Spaceport comes down to hard-headed facts.
At Cornwall Airport Newquay on our north coast, the potential home of Spaceport, we not only have one of the most modern capable airport facilities in the UK but also one of the longest runways (2,744 metres). That’s one reason why the BLOODHOUND SSC Project will use it to test their 1,000 mph rocket and jet car.
Jutting out into the North Atlantic, we are blessed with clear and uncongested skies and access to segregated airspace. Our proximity to the sea means aircraft can be over open water just seconds after take-off. Cornwall Airport Newquay sits at the heart of our Aerohub Enterprise Zone, offering 100% business rate relief for five years and tax breaks for investment in plant and machinery.
It has 348 hectares of land, much of it covered by local development orders, creating the largest planning-free development site in the UK. This includes a fully serviced 29-hectare business park. And we have a half billion pound EU investment programme which identifies space and aerospace as target sectors for growth from now to 2020.
With support from Cornwall Council, the Aerohub Enterprise Zone was recently extended to include the Goonhilly Earth Station on The Lizard Peninsula on the south coast of Cornwall, a major satellite communications hub and location for a proposed Space Science Centre.
Goonhilly has been relaying live broadcasts by British astronaut Tim Peake from the International Space Station to UK schools, and is working with NASA and the European Space Agency to upgrade one of its antennas to provide deep space communications for future missions.
Goonhilly is also working with our region’s universities including Falmouth University, the University of Exeter and Plymouth University as part of the UK Catapult South West Centre of Excellence
in Satellite Applications.
This is looking at how satellite and data technology can be used to develop new commercial opportunities for the UK’s space and other sectors in areas like climate and weather, the location of ships and aircraft, and agriculture.
Such Earth observation missions require growing numbers of small satellites which could be deployed in the future by commercial spaceplanes operating from a UK Spaceport.
Cornwall is ambitious – it wants to be part of a growing and competitive commercial space sector in the UK. Spaceport will deliver this through low cost access to space; it will be world-class infrastructure offering new market opportunities for the space sector. Spaceport activities will include commercial space flight and tourism, microgravity research, small satellite launch and even high-speed intercontinental passenger travel.
What is not proposed at this stage is vertical take-off or landing of rockets, so the prospect of Elon Musk’s SpaceX landing a reusable Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship in St Ives Bay is some way off.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said this week that commercial space flight might seem like science fiction, but said the economic potential of new technology was huge and the UK wanted to increase revenues from the space sector from £12 billion to £40 billion by 2030.
That is why the Government has laid the foundations for a Spaceport to be delivered in the lifetime of this Parliament through its Modern Transport Bill, which also embraces driverless cars and drones. The idea is to put in place the rules for such technologies to thrive.
And we want a big slice of the pie. With Cornwall Airport Newquay, Goonhilly Earth Station, our Universities and a growing space and aerospace sector in Cornwall, we’ve got the foundations for an exciting future.
Cornwall is also pioneering the development of unmanned aircraft and has applied to the Civil Aviation Authority for segregated airspace to operate such vehicles from Cornwall Airport Newquay. We are working in partnership with West Wales Airport to provide the largest area of segregated airspace to operate such flights safely beyond the visual line of site in the EU.
Cornwall can’t do all this in isolation of course, which is why we have built relationships with other regions to play to our collective strengths when it comes to growing the UK’s space industry. But as the only shortlisted Spaceport location in England, our eyes are very much on that prize.
Spaceport will operate and develop horizontal launch spaceplanes or carrier aircraft for satellite deployment. Aerospace technology advances will therefore be key. The South West of England is already home to the largest aerospace cluster in Europe, with more than 900 companies employing 59,000 people, £2.75 billion of exports and contributing £3.2 billion to the economy. It is the attraction of securing many more of these high quality, well-paid jobs that drives our ambition.
It is still early days of course. The Modern Transport Bill will provide an important legislative framework, but we still don’t know the details about how a Spaceport would be procured, funded and built, especially given its quoted price tag of around £140 million.
As we await further guidance from Government we will continue to work on growing our space and aerospace sector for the benefit of our economy.
This blog is by Mark Duddridge is Chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.