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Report from the UK Space Conference

By Rob Swinney

Rob Swinney is a freelance writer, a member of the British Interplanetary Society and an active participant in the Tau Zero Foundation/BIS study group Project Icarus, a team of volunteers working on a practical design for an interstellar probe. Rob completed his Bachelors degree in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and his Masters in Radio Astronomy at the University of Manchester (Jodrell Bank). Later he graduated from Cranfield University (then the Cranfield Institute of Technology) with a Masters degree in Avionics and Flight Control Systems. After a rewarding career in the Royal Air Force as an Aerosystems Engineer (Avionics) Officer he completed his Commision in 2006 having attained the rank of Squadron Leader. He is a Chartered Engineer registered with the UK’s Engineering Council and a Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Rob recently attended the UK Space Conference on July 4 and 5th and here offers us a personal view of the proceedings. Space agencies worldwide are challenged by budget cuts and the need to develop a new vision as we enter the age of commercial space. Our recent discussions here highlighted the problems of the US space program in particular. How do things look in the UK and the European Space Agency?

The UK Space Agency emerged from the forerunner British National Space Centre. This week the agency hosted the UK’s Space Conference 2011 at Warwick University, England, where economic issues came to the fore. The agency has an apparently vastly increased budget of several hundred millions of pounds although this was created by merging funds from other areas and the figure is still well below the amounts spent by the other major European economies.

The conference, whose theme was ‘The New Space Economy,’ brought together members of the space community from industry, government and academia and painted a positive picture of the space sector in the UK, which is estimated to be worth £7.5 billion per year (over $10 billion), a figure the new agency hopes to help grow to over £40 billion in the next 20 years. There was definitely a ground swell of positive opinion about the skills in the UK to build small satellites and other specific areas of the sector that can offer business opportunities.

Interestingly, David Willetts, a Member of Parliament and the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, suggested the health of the UK space sector was in such a good state because there hadn’t been a government agency involved in the past and this had been to its advantage. It is perhaps unclear how ringing an endorsement this is of the move to governmental executive agency status. But Willetts did announce a number of policies to try and improve the environment for doing ‘space’ business in the UK, one of which was to lower the mandatory third party insurance limit from £100m to £60m (for launch and orbital operations).

Even if the agency just focuses on lowering costs and red tape there is little chance of the UK market not growing to £40 billion in the timeframe allowed given the rate of growth for the last 10 years – even through the recession we are now experiencing. Perhaps more challenging is the aim to grow the market share of worldwide space products and services from 6 to 10%.

What the Agency actually does with its £230 million budget is then open to debate. The good news for the European Space Agency (ESA) is that it looks like more of that money will end up being pushed through to ESA. The bad news is that it is really not a lot of money anyway and only a fraction of the totals of other European countries such as France and Germany. Even so, the importance of the UK involvement with ESA was apparent from the first session, ‘Space Policy,’ which included the ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who helped set the scene. Dordain stated that although the conference had started on America’s Independence Day, “Together we are better.” Independent agencies cooperating skillfully can achieve much.

Various tracks were offered in the parallel sessions and on the first day I attended the ‘Science and Exploration’ session followed the next day by ‘Student presentations’ and then ‘Access to Space.’ There was an interesting mix. Much in evidence was the prototype British eccentric, perhaps a throw-back from an earlier age of brilliant endeavour but also a marker for the new generation of young enthusiasts fronted by UKSEDS, the UK chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Also in evidence were the hard headed business people who play so significant a role in the success and focus of the space business in the UK.

The second day opened with a panel session on ‘Innovation – Science, Business and Technology’ and included UK industry ‘giant’ Sir Martin Sweeting OBE, the executive chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., along with innovator Alan Bond, Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd. and a key player in the original Project Daedalus starship design.

Bond discussed the challenges facing an innovator, especially when working with game-changing technology. This is clearly not a UK-specific issue, but he did lament the lack of support from government, industry and the banks, while noting the many skills and commitments innovators had to excel at in addition to their expertise in their field (e.g. becoming brilliant at presenting and communicating the idea, attending conferences at their own expense, working with economists and creating business plans, negotiating patent law as well as being a technical expert).

Bond said that innovators were usually young and naïve and would find that they had to live with less and less of the financial rewards of their innovation. I’m not sure if he was thinking of himself and the Reaction Engines Skylon spaceplane and its SABRE engine but he did mention that the technology first appeared some 40 years ago and that it has been fully 29 years since the start of the development. Perhaps the most valuable lesson he gave was perseverance!

Image: Skylon is the design for an unmanned, reusable spaceplane intended to provide low-cost access to space. The SABRE engines that would drive it offer both air-breathing and conventional rocket capabilities, the intent being to reach orbit in a single stage. Skylon is currently in its proof-of-concept phase. Is this the low-cost way to LEO we once imagined the Space Shuttle would be? Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd.

It is perhaps unclear how the UK Space Agency might have changed this process as its focus is on partnering with others and possibly some small independent projects.

It doesn’t look like there are any immediate plans to support blue sky thinking as far out as interstellar flight. Project Icarus may have to continue on its voluntary way. Indeed I heard interstellar distances mentioned only once and then only as a way of illustrating relative distances — e.g. if you imagine the Earth about the size of a large grapefruit, then the distance from Earth to our Moon is about 4m (a scale of 1,000,000:1), making the distance to the nearest stars the distance of the actual Moon, some 250,000 miles away. An interstellar conference this was not, but full marks to the organisers for putting together a successful look at current policy.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • kurt9 July 11, 2011, 12:42

    Keith Henson has suggested turning the Skylon into a 2-stage system by having the plane boosted into orbit by beamed propulsion (either laser or microwave). The advantage of this would be to increase the payload capacity over the plane itself.

  • James M Essig July 11, 2011, 19:24

    Hi Folks;

    I applaud the work the commercials are doing in chemical rocket systems. Even before we develope nuclear electrical propulsion systems with high thrust outputs, chemical rockets can enable us to zip about our solar system to colonize it as we develop exotic propulsion systems to reach the stars.

    A number of low cost chemical fuels that are well understood can help us reach the Mars.

    Ethanol + 25% water LOX produces a specific impulse equal to 269 seconds at sea level with Combustion chamber pressure of Pc= 68 atm (1000 PSI).

    Consider an Ethanol + 25% water LOX rocket having a mass ratio of 1,000 such as might be accomplished using a large tank where the tank mass to fuel mass ratio is 0.0005, and where the remainder of the vehicle is crew quarters, radiation shielding, rocket engines, and life support supplies.

    The non-relativistic rocket equation is (Delta v) = vex ln (M0/M1) where vex = (ISP)(g0).

    Thus, the above space craft would obtain a terminal velocity of 18.22 km/s. Provided such a space craft could accelerate to this velocity in under a few days, the transit time of the space craft to Mars at Mars closest approach to Earth would be about 3.23 million seconds or roughly five weeks.

    Such a large craft could use its fuel tanks as aero braking chutes in the Martian atmosphere although decelerations would amount to several 10s of Gs for the crew members.

    The crew members would best be enclosed in smart fabric type whole body pressure suits such as suits make of rheo-elastic apparel or other electro-elastic apparel.

    Methane-LOX fuels are very natural for use in bringing the craft back being that such fuels can be made easily from the Martian Atmosphere thus enabling a fuel source for the trip back to Earth.

    The cost of getting the LOX and Ethanol + 25% water to Low Earth Orbit would be high, however, provided that a heavy lift booster could be designed and assembled on the cheap with the possibility of re-usable stages that would parachute back to Earth, perhaps 1,000 such launches could provide enough fuel to enable the above vehicle performance criteria.

    The final uppermost rocket stage might optionally have wings so that it could glide back to Earth in a similar way that the Space Shuttle does.

    Assuming that such heavy lift boosters could be assembled at a cost of $ 100 million per vehicle and that each vehicle could be launched 100 times with quick mission turn around, the cost of the assembled fuel launch hardware per Mars mission could be as low as $ 1 billion. One-hundred missions could be launched using only $100 billion for fuel booster construction. Obviously, the cost of booster flight fuel, flight operations, discarded stage collection and any re-conditioning of stages would add to the cost.

    Such large mass ratios for the proposed interplanetary vessels could also enable practical travel to the Jovian and Saturnian planet-moon systems. For cases where powered gravitational assists are utilized such as with the Sun or with Jupiter or Saturn, timely travel of human crews to the edge of the planetary solar system could be accomplished.

    With chemical rocket technology alone, we could explore and colonize any habitable or terra-formable planet or moon within our solar system. We could mine the asteroids in situ and use the metals, alloys, and perhaps concretes thus produced to build elegant and rotating space colonies that could be distributed all over the solar system. The potential to support a simultaneous population of trillions of human beings becomes possible.

    Add robotic or intelligent machine based construction efforts and the assembly of the required habitats to make this dream a reality would become much easier.

    Single stage to orbit fuel carrying craft such as space planes would help further reduce mission costs, however, the development of space planes has been a tough nut to crack. Perhaps the new commercial space hardware development companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and/or Bigelow Aerospace can crack it as these companies are not weighed down by the legacy of senior engineer and project manager based outmoded ideas and attitudes of skeptism.

    Ethanol + 25% water LOX rockets are candidates being that we understand alcohol combustion very well and also because alcohols are, in general, very easy to produce with simple infrastructure.

    A good scheme would include the incorporation of the fuel carrying ferries into the interplanetary ship’s construction. The rocket engines used to loft to supply ferries into Low Earth Orbit may be re-purposed to provide rocket thrust for the interplanetary ship. The fuel tanks carrying the ship’s fuel could be re-purposed and used as crew quarters modules or optionally interplanetary rocket fuel modules.

    The utility in developing chemical rockets that utilize various chemical fuels is useful in the event that our industrial infrastructure on Earth could be temporarily whacked by global warfare or a natural event or calamity. A rocket propulsion system that could operate on a variety of fuels would be very useful in this regard.

    Naturally, setting up shop on off-world interplanetary bodies will be one heck of a task, however, when I think of how the New World Pilgrims set up shop here on the East Coast of North America and how their meager efforts would result in the modern day U.S., Canada, and Mexico with all of the fabulously large cities and high-way infrastructures, I believe that we as the civilization of humanity is up to the task.

    I have often thought about chemical reactions on steroids that would some how draw vast quantities on chemical reaction energy photons from the zero point energy fields and if such a mechanism can be theoretically determined, perhaps chemical fuels having a specific impulse many times greater than C could one day be developed. Note that I am aware that there is not one shread of evidence for such super-relativistic chemical reaction induced phenomenon, but such chemical reactions would go a very long way to paving our road out into the deep cosmos.

  • Astronist July 11, 2011, 20:10

    Thanks for that report. I’m surprised to hear you talking about a “vastly increased budget” — my understanding was that there was no new money, just a consolidation of the space money previously controlled by a number of different research councils.

    The most important thing for the UK is to support Skylon. We certainly don’t need official space to be distracted by “blue sky thinking” at the moment, when the major markets that could drive space forward in tourism and energy are frustrated by absurdly high launch costs. Let’s get a secure foothold in space first, with an expanding space economy based on the resources of space, and people living permanently in space (and not cowering in their re-entry capsule as soon as a piece of space junk drifts past!). Then we can start to push interstellar studies more prominently.

    Oxford, UK

  • Astronist July 12, 2011, 7:51

    Another point. The good news for ESA — that they’re getting more of your and my money — is definitely not good news for space, given that Britain is a cauldron of innovation (Beagle 2, Spacebus, Skylon) whereas ESA’s policy in space is to sit on their hands and hope someone else comes up with something. How many Beagles could Colin Pillinger have had on Mars by now for what ESA has spent on ExoMars? How much transport to the ISS would there be by now if, instead of building the ATV, ESA had given the contract to David Ashford, or Alan Bond, or Elon Musk?

  • Alex Tolley July 12, 2011, 8:57

    @James Essig
    How big is this ship going to be?
    If each $1 bn launch was just to refuel, with launch costs of “only” $1000/kg, the fuel is 1000 tonnes. With a mass ratio of 1000, that means the ship payload (mass, crew, consumables, etc) is just 1 tonne. Even with launch costs at a very low $100/tonne, the payload at Mars is just 10 tonnes.

    And the return trip requires refueling too.

    I don’t see how such a ship is viable.

  • philw1776 July 12, 2011, 9:27

    Color me deeply skeptical of the forever future Skylon. If its supposedly wonderful engine technology has any merit, take minimal money and build a small scale demonstrator and fly it. Until that happens, it’s just another Powerpoint “plan” like the hundreds we’ve seen since the 60s. Good fortune to the Skylon team.

  • Tobias Holbrook July 12, 2011, 10:33

    Hmmm, I’m not sure supporting Skylon alone would be a good idea – if it fails, then it takes everyone’s hopes with it. Perhaps, supporting Reaction Engines and Bristol Spaceplanes (IMO, they should replace the engine arrangement on their first stage with either a full rocket or ramjet system, but that’s another discussion) much like NASA is doing with COTS, as well as maybe an in-house design? For “heavy” lift, perhaps we could, ah, “stimulate” the economy of shipyard towns by building Sea Dragonfly?

  • James M Essig July 12, 2011, 14:36

    Hi Alex;

    Note that I said

    “Assuming that such heavy lift boosters could be assembled at a cost of $ 100 million per vehicle and that each vehicle could be launched 100 times with quick mission turn around, the cost of the assembled fuel launch hardware per Mars mission could be as low as $ 1 billion. One-hundred missions could be launched using only $100 billion for fuel booster construction. Obviously, the cost of booster flight fuel, flight operations, discarded stage collection and any re-conditioning of stages would add to the cost.”

    I did not specify fuel cost. I assume that more efficient vehicle turn around times and re-usable equipment may enable the mass specific cost of delivering payload to LEO at a simmilar level to that of a modern day commercial 747 Jumbo Jet. We should not discount such a possibility, at least I will not.

    Perhaps cheap high capacity space planes could work for airport like turn around times.

  • Dave Moore July 12, 2011, 14:51

    As an intermediate step to getting the Skylon, I would suggest that Reaction Engines pitch a smaller version to the european military forces as a hypersonic test vehicle.

    The French, in particular, are interested in hypersonic scramjet missiles, but these are hard to test, almost impossible in a wind tunnel, and, because of their high start speed, they need a rocket booster if you want to do a test in the real world. With a SABRE engined vehicle, you could just hang the missile from it and ignite it.

  • Rob Henry July 12, 2011, 17:19

    @Alex Tolley, James Essig’s scheme makes no sense unless the main payload was launched separately from, and slower than, the crew quarters. Perhaps a few tons is OK then for an aerobrake, an enclosing capsule and a few day food, water and oxygen, especially given that in such a very short time we would be unlikely to be hit by a solar flare. The main body of the craft would then do all the work of rendezvous.

  • Alex Tolley July 12, 2011, 17:40

    @ James Essig
    Perhaps you could send me some details of what you are thinking? I am skeptical about the utility of such a low performance propellant used in a mission as you describe, but I am intrigued.


  • Astronist July 12, 2011, 18:25

    @ philw1776: I have had the chance to visit Reaction Engines, and I can tell you that their approach is very much an experimental one. They have done a lot of experimental work on the technology of manufacturing fine tubes, which is the key component of the pre-cooler which makes the Sabre engine work, and are now in the midst of a major experimental test of the pre-cooler technology in a test rig containing a jet engine, funded by both private investment and space agency money.

  • Astronist July 12, 2011, 18:32

    @ James Essig: I would be interested to know what the connection is between your scheme for getting to Mars and the UK Space Conference. Perhaps the UK government is planning to make amends for the Beagle 2 fiasco in a big way?

  • James M Essig July 12, 2011, 23:18

    Hi Astronist;

    Thanks for asking.

    I currently have absolutely no-connection with the UK government nor any other government space technology programs.

    I simply started blogging here at TZ-CD about 5 years ago and eventually fell in love with the whole idea of manned interstellar travel.

    I come from a modest background having been in the field of in situ renewable resource harnessing apparatus; but together with my brother John, we have 9 U.S. patents, 4 utility and 5 design, and have additional U.S. IP pending. We also have some foreign patents issued on the same basic technologies. But, we did not make the best marketing decisions as we foriegn filed just about everywhere we could and together spent about $600,000 dollars filing and amending applications and on patent attorney fees.

    My education is even more humble as I attended George Mason University and studied physics there. GMU at the time I was enrolled and even at the time I took graduate level physics courses there was a sort of fly on the all university. It is and was a large school but by no means Ivy League.

    As I ran up my credit card debt, I began thinking to my self what I was going to do next. I began to study the interstellar astronautics literature and became convinced that we can get to the stars, and beyond, even in the case where Special Relativistic translational light speed travel would be the ultimate limit. I have hope for FTL general relativistic systems but I cannot force nature’s hand if nature very strongly censors any issues that could result from non-locality and a-determinism.

    I have no intention of trying to influence the demise of any space program and infact my intention is just the opposite. As a U.S. citizen living here in the Washinton D.C. metro area, I am a little dismayed at the fact that our leaders just 20 miles due East of where I live have allowed the U.S. to end up without LEO capability for perhaps several years after this final Space Shuttle mission is complete.

    I want all the more space R&D efforts to be made anywhere and however around the globe. I was in second or third grade when the first Apollo mission landed on the Moon and my zeal for this stuff, although perhaps previously temporally disrupted by my life’s circumstances has been re-kinded to such an extent, that I think about this stuff all day long.



  • Andrew W July 13, 2011, 2:15

    I think James is right that a mission to Mars can be done quickly using just chemical propellants, the trick is to use the Oberth effect by expending most of your propellant close to Earth, for example, if you want a v_inf of 17km/s, then this would require only 9.25km/s from chemical rockets.

    An Isp of 450s and 9.25km/s implies a mass ratio of 8.15.

    Here’s a link for flight times to Mars for various delta V’s, though it doesn’t go as high as the speeds James is suggesting.

    The slowing down at Mars also needs to be addressed.

  • Astronist July 14, 2011, 17:56

    James, try looking at it this way: not that the US leaders have allowed the US to end up without manned LEO capability, but rather that the Shuttle was a monopoly blocking progress, and they have broken up that monopoly. They have created a vacuum, which four companies are now competing to fill (SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed and SNC). Possibly there was no other way of doing it. Probably this is happening more by accident than by design, but meanwhile the reality is that NASA’s monopoly is likely to be broken as a consequence.


  • Alex Tolley July 15, 2011, 12:33

    I agree that the shuttle was blocking progress. It even took payloads from cheaper unmanned launchers. But it’s raison d’etre is delivering humans to space. The ISS is planned to be decommissioned with no obvious replacement and the NEA mission is just a paper study with no guarantee of happening. So what are the new competitors going to do for business? No doubt private satellite launches will be the mainstay, but for human spaceflight? There has to be a destination to serve.

  • Astronist July 16, 2011, 18:25

    @ Alex Tolley
    The ESA Council recently formally approved supporting the ISS to 2020, and I believe the Russians have the same in mind. Meanwhile Bigelow is waiting for transport to emerge for his privately developed space stations. He also has six governments signed up. (http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/space/news/bigelow-aerospace-ba2100-hotel) The bottleneck is in the transport, not the orbital infrastructure.

  • Alex Tolley July 17, 2011, 11:07

    Thank you for the link. I hadn’t known that Bigelow had lined up clients for his habs. I’m not clear why he has to wait for a private launcher, like SpaceX to deliver customers. Couldn’t the Russians offer launch capability on a commercial basis? I’m impressed that he now seems ready to offer facilities. The next question is what the costs look like.