Could the UK win the new space race by the end of this year? | Scientific and technical news

No orbital space mission has ever been launched from the lands of modern Europe, but a rise in private sector rocket companies means that should change very soon.

The benefits for the winner could be enormous. At a time when investments in space activities are expected to grow by more than 5% per year, establishing the first operational spaceport on the continent could win a lot of business.

Many competing spaceports are in development across Europe and even in the UK, with a potential launch from Shetland later this year among the first contenders to cross the line – aided by an original contractor Ukrainian and about 80 employees in the country.

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Volodymyr Levykin was born in Ukraine and could be about to launch the first-ever orbital rocket from British soil

The UK space agency has provided more than £40m to industry to develop Britain’s spaceflight capabilities, much of which has gone to the SaxaVord spaceport on the Shetland Islands.

Skyrora, an Edinburgh-based company founded and run by Ukrainian-born Briton Volodymyr Levykin, hopes to launch the first-ever UK-European orbital mission from there later this year.

Skyrora is aiming to launch a 315kg to 500kg satellite into a sun-synchronous polar orbit, which means the satellite would pass over the poles and then every point on Earth at the same local time of day – ideal for satellites d imagery.

Mr Levykin, who moved to the country ‘about 13 years ago’, told Sky News the Shetland site is ‘one of the best in Europe’ as it offered a clean launch trajectory without passing through a foreign territory.

It’s not “perfect” due to weather conditions, he acknowledged with a wistful reference to Florida, but it’s no worse than competing venues in Alaska, Norway and Sweden.

“There are a number of countries in the game right now, in the new space race as we call it,” he said.

Skyrora has three competitors in Germany that are “moving quite fast, very well funded and have good government support,” Levykin said.

But for the moment, the United Kingdom is the most advanced. Last year, the government introduced space industry regulations that allow spaceport operations and allow launches.

‘If we are first and win the new space race, we have a very good chance of really being Europe’s space hub,’ Mr Levykin added.

Skyrora is based in Edinburgh but has half its staff in Ukraine
Skyrora is based in Edinburgh but has half its staff in Ukraine

About half of the company’s 160 employees are based in Dnipro, Ukraine, formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk during the USSR era and which was the heart of the Soviet Union’s rocket program.

Skyrora’s manufacturing and testing facilities are all in the UK – with one to test opening engines in a career retired earlier this week – but staff in Ukraine help with technical development, alongside back-office operations, supply chain and accounting work.

UK's largest rocket engine test facility has opened
Skyrora opened the UK’s largest rocket engine test facility earlier this week

“War has a huge impact on everyone. There are no exceptions,” Mr Levykin said, with some staff having fled due to the invasion.

It was mainly female employees and people with three or more children who left Dnipro to work in western Ukraine, he said, although the majority of staff remained.

Martial law also added some additional difficulties.

“People have realized that the best way to deal with stress is to work and work hard, especially while it’s still possible to work, while it’s still safe.”

The facility in Scotland will be able to test rocket engines
The facility is based in a former quarry in Midlothian

Continuing the work is essential to the proper functioning of Ukraine’s economy, Levykin said, noting how valuable satellite imagery was in providing geospatial intelligence on Russian military movements around Ukraine.

“It’s just my theory that new space satellite companies are playing a big role in this war. The new generation of private space companies are focused on Earth observations – with a primary goal of helping fight climate change. climate – this data is actually widely used to analyze the situation in the war zone.”

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