The UK is joining the space race

Joining the space race

It might not have ended quite as planned, but Britain has officially joined the space race – an important milestone for the country’s space industry, but what does it mean for existing airspace users?

The UK spaceflight industry is evolving incredibly fast with many different launch solutions under development, including vertical and horizontal spaceports, as well as sea and balloon borne launchers. These are all looking to support orbital and sub-orbital rocket manufacturers, foreign launch operators, space tourism and future developments into suborbital flight.

The exact impact on other airspace users of any given launch varies depending on the size of the segregated airspace, duration of the launch, location, time of day, traffic levels, weather etc… and air traffic service providers like NATS need to take into account that while the launch points are fixed for vertical spaceports, mobile launchers from horizontal spaceports, or sea launches can choose locations that best suit their desired trajectory and launch weather.

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Boris Johnson visiting the Spaceport in Cornwall

Boris Johnson visiting the Spaceport in Cornwall

In January 2023, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital space launch from the UK. And while public attention was largely on the development of the rocket and its payload, a lot of effort went on in the background, with NATS and its partners across multiple countries working to ensure the necessary airspace was clear for launch.

NATS first met with Spaceport Cornwall to discuss the launch in September 2019, at the UK Space Conference. Since then, a number of different launch locations and trajectories were assessed, with feedback provided to Virgin Orbit and the UK Civil Aviation Authority on their viability and impact on other airspace users.

A multi-national approach was key, with air navigation service providers (ANSPs), national aviation regulators, transport ministries, and defence ministries from the five countries all involved, namely the UK, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and France.

Spaceport Cornwall in partnership with Virgin Orbit providing launch facilities

As the first attempted orbital space launch from the continent of Europe, Virgin Orbital’s Start Me Up mission demonstrated the level of multi-national coordination which will be needed for future launches given the complexity and traffic density of European airspace.

‘Cosmic Girl’, the modified Boeing 747, departed Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport, heading for the launch site in the airspace to the south of Ireland. As she climbed, Newquay Airport Tower handed control to RAF 78 Squadron based at NATS’ Swanwick control centre, who expedited her climb to cruising altitude. Cosmic Girl then flew towards the seas off southern Ireland to prepare for launch.

The Cosmic Girl flight plan (Courtesy of Virgin Orbit).

Once the final launch location was determined, a Letter of Agreement between all the ANSPs, 78 Squadron, the regulators, Virgin Orbit, Eurocontrol and the UK MoD was agreed, setting down how the launch would work. This then provided the information necessary for the procedures that the controllers would need to safely manage the launch, and any contingencies, such as diversions.

Ensuring other airspace users were aware of the launch, and the potential hazard, involved defining a series of Temporary Danger Areas covering over 800 nautical miles; providing space for Cosmic Girl to manoeuvre and position in order to achieve a specific time and place to launch its rocket into space, and to keep the area underneath the rocket’s flight path clear.

Temporary Danger Areas for the launch covered over 800 nautical miles

The aim throughout this launch was to use standard airspace structures and working practices to keep Cosmic Girl, Launcher One, and the normal airline traffic away from each other so everyone could conduct their business without interfering with (or being interfered by) anyone else.

Whilst the Start Me Up mission was not completely successful, everyone involved should be proud to have played their part in demonstrating just what is possible, as well as developing the experience that will be vital for future launches.

78 Squadron based at our Swanwick Control Centre

As well as 78 Squadron based at Swanwick, the NATS team at Prestwick Centre – which manages air traffic across northern England, Scotland and out into North East Atlantic – were heavily involved. For events like this, their role was to ensure the team delivered a safe and efficient operation and one as close to normal as possible.

The procedures the team put in place ensured everyone had the knowledge they needed to successfully navigate the launch, including multiple contingency plans. Coordination between all the teams and organisations involved needed to be very tight, with each air traffic unit having a direct feed into Virgin Orbit’s command centre, where they could monitor the trajectory of the rocket in real time. As a result, the Prestwick team were very confident they could handle any scenario that came their way quickly, safely and efficiently.

Controlling Cosmic Girl

Controlling Cosmic Girl

NATS is actively engaging with prospective spaceports, just as it does with other airspace users, to inform its long-term airspace management planning. The aim is to ensure the overall UK ATM network continues to enable a safe and efficient service to all. That means integrating new users while making sure existing operators can go about their normal operations.

We may now be living in a new space age, but ensuring UK airspace continues to be a safe, predictable and sustainable place to fly continues to be NATS’ highest priority even as new airspace users reach for the stars.

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