On the day Iran announced it has launched a satellite, two British companies are involved in discussions about developing a low-cost rocket capable of putting small satellites in orbit.
The idea is being promoted by SSTL best known for its Earth observation spacecraft, in conjunction with Virgin Galactic. It is 38 years since the UK government abandoned its successful satellite launcher programme, Black Arrow.
The new venture would be an entirely commercial exercise. It would see a two-stage rocket launch from underneath a carrier aircraft. The concept would look similar to the US Pegasus system, which uses a former airliner to lift a booster to 40,000ft, before releasing it to make its own way into orbit.
“In 1971, we cancelled our launch-vehicle programme and have never gone back into it despite the fact that launch vehicles are an essential part of a healthy space industry,” said Adam Baker from SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Limited).
“If we had our own launcher – something modest, not an enormous vehicle – for a reasonable price, we could service our own needs, both scientific and military, and we could also sell the service on the open market.”
SSTL’s ideas are being developed with Virgin Galactic, the company set up by billionaire Sir Richard Branson to take fare-paying passengers on short, weightless hops above the atmosphere.