As majestic probes spearhead their journey across the solar system, the less glamorous yet pivotal aspect of the space industry — launching satellites into Earth’s orbit — is gaining traction. The UK is emerging as a fertile ground for the development of spaceports and launch businesses, drawing significant attention from venture capitalists.
Navigating the New Norm in Satellite Launch
Traditionally dominated by behemoths like Arianespace and SpaceX, the space launch landscape is witnessing a shift. In the UK, small spaceports are springing up, supported by the government’s enthusiastic backing. Orbex, a company established in 2015, not only designs and manufactures launchers but also operates the Sutherland Spaceport in Scotland. Having raised £100 million, with a recent injection of £40.4 million in a Series C round in Autumn 2022, the company is on the brink of its inaugural launch.
UK’s Blossoming Space Ecosyste
CEO Martin Coates shares insights on transitioning a VC-backed space company from concept to commercial operation.
Contributing £7 billion in added value to the UK economy and employing 48,000 individuals, the space industry is a significant player. Despite the prominence of satellite manufacturing, the absence of operational launch facilities has been a glaring gap. However, with seven listed spaceports and a supportive regulatory framework, the UK is positioned to breach this void. The hurdles are real, as evidenced by Virgin Orbit’s failed launch, yet the momentum persists.
Launch Capabilities Redefined
Martin Coates underscores a pressing need for diversified launch capabilities. Traditional large payload launches lack customization, often leading to suboptimal satellite placements and delays. Orbex promises a tailored, albeit pricier, solution.
“We can send your satellite directly to where you want it to go,” affirms Coates.
The geopolitical landscape, marred by tensions and conflicts, underscores the need for resilient, short supply chains, immune to international discord.
Captivating the Investors
Orbex’s £100 million funding feat underscores VC interest, albeit with complexities. Grant funding, especially from the UK and European Space Agencies, has been instrumental. Milestone achievements catalyzed funding rounds, with innovation and problem-solving at the forefront. Despite the allure of space, Coates concedes, “closing the round was challenging.” Yet, the sector’s high-profile nature and Orbex’s technical prowess, marked by patented innovations, beckon investors.
A Comprehensive Space Industry
Coates envisions a multi-dimensional impact. The cluster effect, emanating from an ecosystem of satellite building, launcher creation, and spaceport operations, augments the UK’s space allure. Local regions are beneficiaries too, with job creation spanning technical and non-technical sectors.
“Even the ancillary jobs like quality assurance…you take generic skills and build on them,” Coates adds.
Though UK’s spaceports are yet to witness the roaring launch of rockets, Orbex’s journey illuminates an investible, opportunity-laden industry for those conquering the technical launch challenges. The UK’s space narrative is unfolding, characterized by innovation, investment, and an unyielding spirit to breach the final frontier.