RFA static fires at SaxaVord Spaceport as other UK spaceports continue to develop

by John Sharp

Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), from Augsburg, Germany, appears to have made a significant step toward the first vertical orbital launch attempt from the United Kingdom (UK). On May 16, RFA successfully conducted an unannounced first static fire of the first stage of its RFA ONE rocket.

A video showing the test has since been released, with an accompanying update saying, “We hot-fired a total of four Helix engines, igniting one by one at four-second intervals. All engines ran simultaneously for 8 seconds with a total hot-fire duration of 20 seconds. The test ran flawlessly through start-up, steady-state and shutdown.”

The stainless steel-constructed RFA ONE first stage was mounted vertically on the Fredo launch mount at SaxaVord Spaceport on Unst in Shetland at the end of April. In April, the vehicle was shipped by road and ferry from Germany for integration and hot-fire tests.

RFA went on to say, “With this hot fire, we were able to demonstrate that we can nominally operate and control our first stage and all its systems, as well as a cluster of Helix engines.”

RFA ONE is a three-stage, two-meter diameter rocket, standing 30 meters high and powered by RFA’s own kerosene-fuelled Helix engines. The first stage has nine engines, while the second stage has one. Claimed to be able to lift 1,300 kilograms to a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit, the booster comes with the Redshift Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), which functions as a kick-stage and on-orbit services spacecraft.

Helix is a staged combustion engine operated with RP-1 (kerosene) as propellant and liquid oxygen as oxidizer. Unlike engines with an open combustion cycle, the exhaust gases from the Helix engine’s oxygen-rich preburner are fed into the main combustion chamber after driving the turbopump. Thus, the fuel is burned more completely, increasing Helix´s efficiency. Staged combustion is also more environmentally friendly, as significantly fewer highly sooty exhaust gases are released into the atmosphere. The engine was named following a public poll in 2022.

In a quote to NSF, Dr. Stefan Brieschenk, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder at RFA, said, “Over the next few weeks, we will install four more Helix engines on the first stage to complete the nine-engine cluster. Once these have completed the check-out tests, the next hot fire with nine Helix engines will take place after the end of the bird breeding season in SaxaVord. At the same time, we will hot-fire the upper stage for flight acceptance in Sweden and the Redshift OTV in Germany. If these qualification campaigns are successful, we are well on the way to having a full stack RFA ONE on the launch pad in August.”

SaxaVord Spaceport, Unst, Shetland

Scotland’s first vertical rocket launch site has moved another step closer to opening with the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) granting the SaxaVord Spaceport a range control license, allowing teams at the Spaceport to control the danger areas around the launch area. This license, granted at the end of April, follows closely behind the spaceport license granted in December last year and was the last major paperwork hurdle needing to be overcome before SaxaVord can start to conduct launches.

The clear leader in terms of construction, SaxaVord has been rising from the small Scottish island of Unst for some time, and there is now a recognizable launch pad, named Fredo, and a nearby rocket hanger nearing completion. As mentioned above, the spaceport’s paperwork is sufficiently complete to allow for the UK’s first vertical orbital launch, which could be as early as September this year if the RFA test campaign goes well.

CEO Frank Strang and his team have attracted an adequate array of customers for the fledgling spaceport, not least the UK Pathfinder Launch program, which is partly funded by the UK Space Agency. Lockheed Martin and ABL are in partnership to launch the RS1 from SaxaVord, though there has been little news for some time, particularly since the rocket’s failure on its maiden flight from Kodiak, Alaska, in January 2023.

German rocket company HyImpulse signed a partnership with SaxaVord in November 2023 enabling two sub-orbital launches and one orbital launch from Shetland. The agreement is enabled by a launch license issued by the CAA allowing launches from Shetland until December 2024. HyImpulse appears to be currently focused on launching its SR75 sounding rocket from Kooninga in South Australia.

Edinburgh company Skyrora is also intending to launch from SaxaVord, utilizing their Skyrora XL 3-stage orbital rocket, which is powered by the company’s Ecosene fuel. Ecosene is made, at least partially, from recycled plastics, including some that are not otherwise usable for recycling, including chip (crisp) packets. The company has been unusually very quiet so far this year and has not yet issued a 1st quarter update for 2024.

Sutherland Spaceport, Melness, Sutherland

Sutherland Spaceport had appeared to be rather static for many months following the resolution of various court cases, which were settled in 2021, allowing construction to begin. However, in November 2022, launch company Orbex, based in Forres, Inverness, announced they would be taking on oversight of the construction, and would be managing the spaceport going forward.

Visual progress eventually appeared, with the erection of a sign, followed by the official ground-breaking ceremony on May 4, 2023. Actual construction, though, is now well underway with the delivery of steel bridge decks and helicopter-delivered concrete for bridge abutments. The access road will be a novel form of floating roadway, intended to preserve the environmentally important peat at the launch site.

Spaceport Cornwall, Newquay Airport, Cornwall

While Spaceport Cornwall holds the honor of being the first UK-licensed Spaceport, its commercial partner, Virgin Orbit, closed following the loss of its first orbital launch attempt from the UK on January 9, 2023. This resulted in the company’s closure and the sale of the remaining assets, including the iconic Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, which was sold to Stratolaunch.

Cornwall is currently operating a new Space Systems Operations Facility, which hosts at least 13 companies, including Avanti Communications, which operates a small fleet of satellites from both this site and the Goonhilly Earth Station, which works closely with the Spaceport.

In January 2024, the Spaceport trailed the possibility of a new launch partner, possibly launching as early as 2025, but there has been no further comment since.

Snowdonia Space Centre, Llanbedr Airfield, Snowdonia, Wales

In December 2023, the Snowdonia Space Centre was granted UKP820,000 from the UK Space Agency to build a Space Technology Test Centre (STTS) at its site on Llanbedr Airport, on the western coast of Snowdonia in Wales.

The new STTS will have a full suite of spacecraft testing environments and the ability to launch small rockets out into the existing Ministry of Defence (MOD) range off its shoreline. Rocket engine testing facilities will also be available.

This project is underway and is expected to open in March 2025. It will be operated jointly with Newton Launch Systems, a small UK company founded in 2011 to make spaceflight more sustainable.

Llanbedr Airfield — site of Snowdonia Spaceport. (Credit: Snowdonia Enterprise Zone)

The site’s business plan could include a space observatory and a planetarium, given that it is in a dark skies area that is popular with tourists.

Spaceport 1, Scolpaig, North Uist, Scotland

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, “Western Isles Council,” and QinetiQ, a military contractor working with the MOD, have obtained planning permission to build a small suborbital rocket launch base in Scolpaig on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist.

Objectors who are concerned about the new site’s proximity to important seabird nesting sites are fiercely fighting the proposals, and progress has been slow as a result. A period of public consultation is currently underway regarding the plans to introduce an airspace Danger Area, which is a legal requirement when launching rockets.

Launch company Gravitilab Aerospace Services flew a sounding rocket from nearby Benbecula in support of the new base in August 2023.

Prestwick Airport Spaceport, Glasgow, Scotland

Prestwick has ambitions to rival Cornwall in the horizontal launch site market, having a very long runway available on Scotland’s western coast, as well as very good transport connections, something most other UK spaceports lack.

C-17 Globemaster in Astraius colours. (Credit: Astraius)

In March 2023, Spirit AeroSystems Inc. and Astraius Ltd. signed a partnership agreement to enhance future satellite launch capabilities from Prestwick. They plan to utilize air launch methods, flying horizontally launched rockets inside a C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft, deploying the rocket from the rear cargo door of the aircraft once they reach a suitable height and heading, after which the rocket will fire and carry the payload to orbit. Astraius’ rocket has three stages. The first two are Northrop Grumman-powered Orion solid motors, while the third stage is built by Exquadrum and will be capable of placing the payload into the required orbit.

Spaceport Machrihanish, Argyll, Scotland

No obvious activity has been reported regarding this spaceport since Skyrora performed some engine testing there in 2022.

(Lead image: RFA ONE static fire at SaxaVord. Credit: RFA)

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