How Skyrora Aims To Be The First Private Company To Launch Into Space From The UK
Tell us your background and about Skyrora
My background is within the IT industry where I have over 10-years’ experience working at C-level across various companies. Immediately prior to my decision to found Skyrora I was based in Silicon Valley, USA. I was attracted to the space industry by the huge opportunity that I identified within the space industry in the UK, notably in Scotland.
Edinburgh is home to a multitude of space data companies and Glasgow is the second largest producer of small satellites, outside of the USA. It was apparent to me that there was a clear demand for small launch vehicles to complete the industry in the UK and this is the market opportunity I chose to pursue.
Skyrora is an Edinburgh based launch vehicle designer, manufacturer and service operator. We aim to provide payload space for small satellites and will transport around 315kg of payload to 500km. Skyrora can access both polar and sun-synchronous orbits and plan to launch from a spaceport in Scotland by 2022, in line with the plans of the UK government and UK Space Agency. At present, we have 120 staff working across the UK and Europe.
How did the idea for Skyrora come about and what was it like getting started?
As I mentioned previously, I identified the significant market opportunity within the UK space industry and decided to pursue this. In terms of turning this idea into a reality, I was preparing to move myself and my family back to the UK having previously lived there for ~10 years, so I hired a small number of individuals to assist me in the initial formation of Skyrora.
For the first few months, I attended every conference relating to space within the UK. Through attendance at these, I established an extensive network of contacts across the wider space industry and greatly broadened my own understanding of the market. Having spent several months conducting this extensive market research, I was able to confirm the feasibility of the launch market within the UK.
Of all small satellites built between now and 2030, only 35% of these will reach space using today’s launch capacity.
From this point, I hired several experienced individuals within the industry, though individuals with real launch experience are few and far between in the UK. So I sourced out those to join the team and from this point I have expanded the company rapidly with over 120 staff employed across the UK and Europe to date.
How did you fund the company initially?
Investment for Skyrora has stemmed from a private group of investors, of which I am included. My partners and I have substantial confidence in the company due to the fast-paced movement of activities, the disruptive technologies being developed and the real-hardware currently being tested that we have committed to invest a further sum of money which will finance Skyrora up to orbital launch.
Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration?
The current problem we are facing today is that there is a substantial backlog of small satellites waiting to be launched into space. In a report issued by the UK Space Agency in August 2018, it was revealed that the current ride-share model of launch is not sufficient. At present, of all small satellites built between now and 2030, only 35% of these will reach space using today’s launch capacity.
There are currently no dedicated small satellite launch vehicles in Europe and at Skyrora we plan to fill this gap. We will provide dedicated and responsive launch services for satellite customers and our orbital vehicle Skyrora XL will be capable of transporting payloads of 315kg to 500km.
We have several USPs but most important of all are our fuel combination and our re-igniteable third stage engine.
Firstly, we are utilising the fuel combination of hydrogen peroxide (HTP) and kerosene. This same combination was used in the Black Arrow rocket programme which was a UK launch vehicle developed in the 1960s and the first (and currently the only) UK launch vehicle to successfully place a satellite (Prospero) into orbit.
We will provide dedicated and responsive launch services for satellite customers and our orbital vehicle Skyrora XL will be capable of transporting payloads of 315kg to 500km.
Most launch vehicle companies use Liquid Oxygen (LOX) as their oxidiser of choice. Instead, the use of hydrogen peroxide (HTP) offers us a number of key advantages including a cleaner burn, increased stability in flight thus reducing the G-forces placed on the payload and storability as HTP is non-cryogenic and therefore stable at room temperature.
Given the slightly unpredictable Scottish weather, this offers us a substantial advantage as our vehicle can remain fully fuelled on the launch pad for several days while we wait for a launch window. This is in contrast to vehicles using LOX which will need to be drained and refuelled constantly due to the cryogenic and inherently unstable nature of this fuel.
Secondly, due to our fuel combination and advanced engineering, we have successfully produced an engine for the 3rd-stage of our vehicle which is re-igniteable in a vacuum. This means that our vehicle can carry several satellites and still offer each satellite a dedicated service with precise placement into their desired orbit.
I personally believe that a significant number of the current global challenges we are facing, ranging from increasing global temperatures to food allergies, can be identified and in-part solved through increased earth observation.
This is my personal interest in the space industry and the drive behind my ambition to achieve launch capability in the UK.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
At Skyrora, we are moving rapidly and have achieved several significant milestones over the past 12 months.
Highlights for me are the advanced progress our engineering team has made with the design of our engines and the in-house development and recent testing of unique pressure vessels for our vehicles.
In addition to these technological developments, a highlight for me was the successful launch of Skylark Nano in August 2018, Scotland’s first ever commercial rocket launch. Skylark Nano is one of the vehicles which is incorporated in our incremental step by step approach.
While our engineers and scientists are working on the design and manufacture of our orbital vehicle, Skyrora XL, we have decided to produce a series of smaller vehicles in parallel. These will allow us to conduct critical real-time tests of components which will be implemented into our orbital vehicle, including: on-board avionics systems, stage separation systems, flight recovery systems and ground tracking telemetry systems.
This allows us to de-risk which provides assurances to investors and allows any issues to be identified and corrected at an early development stage rather than later when the Skyrora XL is ready to launch.
Finally, I am particularly proud of the educational outreach opportunities that have come as a result of our team’s efforts to successfully return the Black Arrow rocket to the UK from the Australian outback.
What have been some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
We have, understandably, faced several challenges to date.
Firstly, the biggest challenge we face at present is breaking successfully into the highly competitive New Space market. In order to be successful in this market, Skyrora must prove itself as a cost-efficient solution for small satellite orbital launch and in order for this we must continue to develop disruptive technologies that reduce weight and cost of launch.
This applies to the wider chain surrounding launch rather than just the physical launch vehicles, including: the launch infrastructure, fuels, transportation, range services and insurance.
We are committed to inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts
Secondly, we have faced regulatory issues as the current regulations that are in place, The Outer Space Act 1986, are not suitable for commercial launch in the UK. In order to overcome this, we are working closely with industry, government and policy makers to collectively be involved in the formation of the necessary new regulations and policy.
Thirdly, we have faced a few technical challenges in our development. The most significant of these has been related to our pressure vessels. Unfortunately, as the UK is new to the launch industry, the supply chain is not quite at the level of maturity that is desired, and we have faced several challenges in sourcing suppliers across the UK and Europe.
This has led us to develop and produce our pressure vessels in-house. In order to benefit the wider UK and European supply chains, we are actively feeding our requirements in to work with both industry and enterprises to develop this capacity and strengthen the supply chains.
In addition, we have identified a challenge in the UK with sourcing individuals who have real launch experience. As the UK has not produced launch vehicles since the Black Arrow programme was cancelled in 1971, the technical expertise is severely lacking. We have identified the growing skills gap in the UK and this has led us to establish a STEM charter and incorporate STEM and Educational Outreach as a key corporate value within the company.
We are committed to inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts and currently invest in excess of £500,000 per annum into our STEM activities to encourage youths to pursue educational opportunities and careers in STEM.
What are exciting milestones coming up for Skyrora?
At Skyrora we are moving very fast and conducting numerous activities in parallel, so the next six months are looking very busy with lots of exciting milestones!
With the successful launch of our SkyHy vehicle, we will become the first private company to reach space from the UK.
Several key exciting milestones for us include:
- The imminent launch of Skylark Micro, a 4m two-stage solid-fuel vehicle which will reach ~45 km altitude
- Completing engine testing of our 2nd engine
- Securing our own engine testing site in Scotland within the next six months with planning permission currently pending on a site just outside Edinburgh
- Launch of SkyHy, our first hybrid vehicle, containing both solid and liquid propellants. With the successful launch of this vehicle, we will become the first private company to reach space from the UK
- Continued development and manufacturing of SK-1
With regards to our longer-term milestones, by 2021, we hope to be one of the first British companies to submit an application to the UK Space Agency for a launch license which will allow us to begin orbital launch from the UK.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
I would say learn the market before you start, not just the opportunities, but the challenges too. Obstacles can appear from nowhere in this business and that can cause issues in the new commercial space age, where agility and flexibility are key to success. The more you know the market, the better prepared you will be to plan your strategy.
My approach is to focus on my main goal but also to keep an eye out for gaps that can be filled on the way to “space”. In other words, it’s not just about launching satellites for me - although that is Skyrora’s main focus. But to be commercially successful you should be ready to capitalise on opportunities that make sense and do not detract from your main goal but actually supplement and enhance it.
Filling such gaps can actually turn out to be more profitable than reaching space, so always remain open to ideas.
To be commercially successful you should be ready to capitalise on opportunities that make sense and do not detract from your main goal.
Finally, I would emphasise that New Space today is at a similar point to where the internet was 20 years ago. This means it's the ideal time to step in and take advantage of the exciting opportunities! The whole sector must be proactive and collaborate to ensure we make the most of this once in a lifetime moment.
How can the public support you with your mission?
The main thing that the public can do to support us in our mission to achieve orbital launch from the UK is to follow the space industry in the UK and spread the word with regards to who we are and what we plan to do.
In addition, you can follow us on our social media (links below) to keep up to date with our exciting developments. Finally, you can subscribe to our newsletter through the link on our website to receive monthly updates on our progress.
Lastly, where can people find out more about Skyrora and follow along?
Keep an eye on our social media accounts as we will be posting some exciting updates and all our launch footage!
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