‘Galactic Britain’: how Cornwall is winning the European space race

After last week’s publication of the national space strategy, photojournalist Jonny Weeks explores how the south-west is primed for the first launch of a satellite-bearing rocket from UK soil

“When we first started, people would laugh at us,” says Melissa Thorpe as she guides a group of visitors around an exhibition in a vast hangar at Newquay airport. “But now look, we’re only a matter of months from launch.”

Sweeping around a tall black curtain, she reveals a 21-metre space rocket glimmering under red spot lights. Children’s eyes widen and the adults in the group are agog.

Next year, a rocket like this will be launched into space from the runway outside. Suspended beneath the wing of a modified 747 aeroplane during a horizontal takeoff, it will be propelled into lower Earth orbit carrying government, academic and commercial satellites.

“It’s incredible to think this is happening in Cornwall,” says one visitor. “I thought it was just tourism and pasties round here,” says another, only half joking.

A model of the 747 aeroplane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, which will carry the Launcher One rocket beneath one of its wings.
A model of the 747 aeroplane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, which will carry the Launcher One rocket beneath one of its wings. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • A model of the 747 aeroplane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, which will carry the Launcher One rocket beneath one of its wings.

***

Spaceport Cornwall is one of the cornerstones of the government’s national space strategy, unveiled last month, in which Boris Johnson called for “global Britain” to become “galactic Britain”. Seven spaceports are slated around the UK as the government looks to create one of the most “innovative and attractive space economies in the world”, following years spent “idling on the launch pad”.

Black Arrow was the UK’s first satellite-bearing rocket to reach Earth’s orbit in 1971, but it was launched from Australian soil and the programme was promptly scrapped. Now, under Thorpe’s management, Spaceport Cornwall is the frontrunner in a new and hotly contested space race.

Construction is under way on an 18,500 sq metre hangar at Newquay airport, where satellites will be loaded into the rocket. Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit – the rocket’s owner – has proven its launch capability from the Mojave desert in the US. All that remains is for Thorpe and her team to finalise a licence for takeoff next summer.

The construction site of the new hangar, which will be used by Spaceport Cornwall. The council has given £5.6m to the project.
The construction site of the new hangar, which will be used by Spaceport Cornwall. The council has given £5.6m to the project. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • The construction site of the new hangar, which will be used by Spaceport Cornwall. The council has given £5.6m towards the project.

“It’s all about getting the UK to launch before Europe,” says Thorpe. “There’s a closing window of opportunity for us to secure the market. We’re ahead at the minute but we’re losing out on time.

“The spaceport site in Wales is looking at balloon launch; the sites in Scotland are looking at vertical launch; there’s one in Sweden; Italy has major ambitions for horizontal launch. We don’t want to see a launch coming from Italy and flying over the top of Cornwall while we all sit here going: ‘Oh, we wish we had that.’”

Stars over an old tin mine in St Agnes, Cornwall.
Stars over an old tin mine in St Agnes, Cornwall. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Stars over an old tin mine in St Agnes, Cornwall.

***

Such is her passion, it’s easy to picture Thorpe as a childhood space nerd. But she confesses otherwise. “I’m really not much of a space geek at all but I am blown away by what space can do for us here on Earth,” says the Canadian. “I just really want to protect our planet through innovation and I know that satellites can make everything on Earth more efficient.

“Whether it’s for marine protection, lithium mining, farming, offshore wind or tourism – there are so many applications for satellite technology.”

The first payload to launch from Newquay will include a “community” satellite. Kernow Sat 1, as it is known, it will identify coastal locations around Cornwall where sea kelp, which can sequester vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, could be regrown.

Paul Bate, the new chief executive of the UK Space Agency.
Paul Bate, the new chief executive of the UK Space Agency. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Paul Bate, the new chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

Thorpe’s environmental ambitions are echoed by Paul Bate, UK Space Agency’s new chief executive. Speaking to schoolchildren in Newquay, he asked: “Do we really need to be doing this stuff in space? After all, we’ve got enough problems on Earth – we just lived through a pandemic, we’ve got a climate emergency.

“But over half of the critical measurements on climate change rely on satellite data. We wouldn’t know what we know about climate change unless we were looking down at the earth from above.”

***

Patrick McCall, the chair of Virgin Orbit, credits the growth in the satellite sector – and Sir Richard Branson’s willingness to plough a billion dollars into Virgin’s launch technology – to decreasing entry costs for customers.

“The market has totally changed,” McCall says. “Ten to 20 years ago, all of the satellites that were launched were the size of doubledecker buses and they were very expensive to build and launch. You’d spend about five years and a billion dollars to get your satellite up.

“But satellites are now the size of shoe boxes and our max load is 300kg so we can pack a few of them in and launch very cheaply. It’s an amazing time for the British space industry.”

Visitors to the Story Of A Satellite exhibition.
Visitors to the Story of a Satellite exhibition. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Visitors to the Story of a Satellite exhibition.

Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, is enthusiastic about the potential democratisation of space. However, she warns that directives are needed to ensure space is not the next frontier to be irrevocably polluted by humans.

“We need to consider the environmental impact in the upper and lower atmosphere, and we need to have the right regulations for spacecraft in orbit,” she says. “I want them to have transponders, so that we can track them and move them out of the way of other craft, to avoid space debris.

“The problem is simply the numbers of satellites being launched. We need to make sure we’re doing things properly and sustainably. But that shouldn’t stop us being excited.”

Some local residents have expressed reservations. Catherine Smith says: “The amount of money the space economy spends is huge. If 1% of that could be spent on sorting recycling or feeding people, would we be better off?”

A drawing by Rowan McIntosh of St Columb Minor School showing the benefits to Cornwall from satellite technology.
A drawing by Rowan McIntosh of St Columb minor school showing the benefits to Cornwall from satellite technology. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • A drawing by Rowan McIntosh of St Columb minor school showing the benefits to Cornwall from satellite technology.

***

Over at Goonhilly Earth Station near Helston, in one of the most remote corners of Cornwall, Ian Jones, the chief executive, is looking out from the old watchtower. Formerly owned by BT, the site is now the first private deep space communication network in the world and will track launches from Spaceport Cornwall.

Goonhilly’s largest antenna, known as Merlin, is charting a Mars rover as it hurtles 300m km beyond the sun.

“We get a load of instructions from our customers, in this case the European Space Agency, and they tell us what they want us to do with their craft such as orbital manoeuvres, taking measurements or getting data,” says Jones.

On the possibilities for regional business development, he adds: “You always get pockets of hidden magic, but what you need is a food chain, an ecosystem, and that’s what Cornwall has lacked in the past. With bigger entities like Spaceport arriving, we can both act as hubs for integration and development. It’s like a snowball.”

Ian Jones at Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, with the ‘Merlin’ antenna in the background.
Ian Jones at Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, with the ‘Merlin’ antenna in the background. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Ian Jones at Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, with the Merlin antenna in the background.

Engineers working on some of the smaller antennae at Goonhilly.
Engineers working on some of the smaller antennae at Goonhilly. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Engineers working on some of the smaller antennae at Goonhilly.

The government expects that the global space economy will be worth £490bn by 2030 and Spaceport hopes to directly create 150 jobs by 2025. Cornwall Council has given £5.6m to the project.

Thorpe is keen for Spaceport to diversify and grow. “It’s exciting to launch rockets but we had to ask ourselves what else are we doing when Virgin isn’t here?” she says. “Hence we’re building the Centre for Space Technology – a clean lab where we can work with satellite companies on R&D. A lot of the smaller SMEs could never afford a facility like that so it’ll be great for Cornwall.

“We’ve also partnered with Sierra Space to allow their Dream Chaser craft to land horizontally on the runway here from 2025. If it’s bringing back microgravity experiments, we can process them here.”

***

Several academic establishments in the south-west are developing courses and training facilities for careers in space, aided by a share of £1.73m from the European Social Fund.Heidi Thiemann, project manager at Truro and Penwith College, says it will start space apprenticeships next year, featuring training in “manufacturing, CAD, programming, propulsion, cryogenics and cool things like that”.

Heidi Thiemann, project manager at Truro and Penwith College.
Heidi Thiemann, project manager at Truro and Penwith College. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Heidi Thiemann, project manager at Truro and Penwith College.

“In Cornwall we have an issue with brain drain as people leave for London,” she adds. “So our aim is to meet with businesses and see what training they need employees to have.”

Noting that Virgin Orbit’s rockets will be built in the US and are partially reusable, Thiemann says local jobs will come further down the supply chain, including processing data. “We’ll have satellite data coming out of our ears!” she says.

***

Dave Pollard, Spaceport Cornwall’s outreach manager, talks to a group of school children about a device that can dispatch individual satellites into differing orbits.
Dave Pollard, Spaceport Cornwall’s outreach manager, talks to a group of school children about a device that can dispatch individual satellites into differing orbits. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
Eden Berry, 12, from Camborne Science & International Academy, talks to her fellow pupils about the rocket.
Eden Berry, 12, from Camborne Science & International Academy, talks to her fellow pupils about the rocket. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • (Left) Dave Pollard, Spaceport Cornwall’s outreach manager, talks to a group of schoolchildren about a device that can dispatch individual satellites into differing orbits. (Right) Eden Berry, 12, from Camborne Science and International Academy, talks to her fellow pupils about the rocket.

Thiemann is also founder of the Space Skills Alliance, which has published a new census on employment in the sector. Released as International Space Week celebrates women in space, the stats make for awkward reading.

“We found that 29% of people working in the UK space sector are women, but only 47% of women say they feel ‘always welcome’ compared with 79% of men,” she says. “We also found that women consistently earn less than men, a gap that widens with age and seniority from £1,000 in junior roles to £9,000 in senior ones.

“It was quite sad to read some of the comments women left on the census regarding issues of maternity pay, missed training and childcare discrimination.”

Thorpe is keen for improvements. “I was moderating on a panel a few years ago about the future of space,” she says. “The panel was made up of five or six men of a certain age from the US military and the first thing I said is ‘this isn’t the future of space’.

“I think it’s really important for girls to see women like me involved in this industry. They don’t have to be an astronaut or an astro-scientist – in future there will be so many other careers, like growing food in space, marketing in space, mining asteroids.”

Destiny Whetter, 7, enjoying the VR experience alongside her mum Lucy.
Destiny Whetter, 7, enjoying the VR experience alongside her mum Lucy. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
  • Destiny Whetter, seven, enjoys the VR experience alongside her mother, Lucy.

***

Back at the exhibition hangar in Newquay, seven-year-old Destiny Whetter from St Austell is immersed in a virtual reality experience featuring CGIs of far-flung exoplanets. “I saw a lava planet and sandy rocks and a water planet,” she says, excitedly. “It was awesome and epic and scary.”

Whetter turns to her mother and confidently declares that the Launcher One rocket will be fired into space when the commander utters the words: “One, two, three, blast off!”

Thorpe is beaming with anticipation at the idea. “It’s been such an ethereal project for so long, it seems surreal to think about it finally happening,” she says.

“The feeling of being alongside my team on the Tarmac, watching it take off after almost 10 years of pain and planning, will be really emotional. It’s going to be historic.”

Contributor

Jonny Weeks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Plans to grow Britain's space industry into £40bn a year business

Report proposes satellites to monitor greenhouse gas emissions and broadcast hi-tech television and internet services

Ian Sample, science correspondent

10, Feb, 2010 @6:00 AM

Article image
Solar storms could create $2tn 'global Katrina', warns chief scientist

GPS systems and electricity networks are increasingly vulnerable to damage by turbulent solar weather, scientists say

Alok Jha

21, Feb, 2011 @11:51 AM

Article image
Brazil fisherman nets UK space debris in Amazon
UK Space Agency says object was part of payload that launched with communications satellite in French Guiana last year

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro

01, May, 2014 @5:06 PM

Article image
Afghanistan announces satellite tender
International partner sought to put Afghanistan's first satellite in orbit to improve the country's television and internet coverage

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

09, Apr, 2012 @4:08 PM

Article image
$1bn investment brings global satellite internet a step nearer
Spacewatch Japanese investment in OneWeb offers hope of global internet equality

22, Dec, 2016 @9:30 PM

Article image
SpaceX to attempt first launch since Falcon 9 explosion
Spacewatch Launch will be the crucial test of whether SpaceX engineers have understood the cause of the blast enough to correct it

Stuart Clark

12, Jan, 2017 @9:30 PM

Article image
Virgin Galactic to accept Bitcoin for space flights
Richard Branson says: 'All of our astronauts are pioneers … and this is one more way to be forward-thinking'

Amanda Holpuch

22, Nov, 2013 @4:43 PM

Article image
Virgin Galactic crash investigators are a long way from finding the cause
Descent system was unlocked two seconds before SpaceShipTwo disintegrated, but what happened next is unclear

Ian Sample

03, Nov, 2014 @6:52 PM

Article image
Plans to build world’s deepest pool in Cornwall to train astronauts
Blue Abyss applies for permission to build £150m centre with pool that would reach depths of 50m

Nadeem Badshah

02, Jun, 2021 @6:57 PM

Article image
World history seen via a shop window | Brief letters
Brief letters: Apollo space missions | China’s emissions | Denis Healy sightings | Telephones | Identifying art

Letters

06, Aug, 2018 @4:10 PM