Cornwall Council will provide up £12 million in funding to develop Europe’s first horizontal launch spaceport at Newquay airport, with the UK Space Agency contributing up to £7.85 million.
The council hopes Spaceport Cornwall could create 150 jobs, with launch operator Virgin Orbit planning to spend a further £2.5 million to enable small satellites to be launched from the site from the early 2020s.
Cornwall Airport Newquay used to be RAF St Mawgan, and has a 2,744-metre runway – one of the longest in the UK – which faces out across the Atlantic. This makes it suitable for aeroplane-style ‘horizontal launches’ that reach orbit gradually, rather than the vertical launches used by rockets. The airport site was bought by Cornwall Council in 2008, and hosts Aerohub, an enterprise zone designed to attract aerospace businesses.
“Cornwall is the birthplace of innovation and technology and space is a key part of a 21st century economy,” said Julian German, leader of Cornwall Council. “With assets like Spaceport Cornwall, world-class mission control facilities at Goonhilly Earth Station and superb digital connectivity, Cornwall can play a vital role in the growth of the global space economy.”
The UK Space Agency also said it will support the development of a new instrument to monitor solar wind, the stream of magnetised plasma from the Sun that can affect the Earth’s gravitational field. An extreme ‘Carrington event’ geomagnetic storm, of the kind last experienced in 1859 and observed by astronomer Richard Carrington, could cause severe damage to electrical grids, telecommunications, aviation and satellites. If unexpected, a Carrington event could knock £15.9 billion from the UK’s gross domestic product, according to a 2018 University of Oxford study.
To improve predictive capabilities, the agency is providing £7 million in funding through the European Space Agency to scientists at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory to develop a new plasma analyser that will be able to provide early warning of damaging space weather. The UK is collaborating with US agencies including Nasa and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Image of Newquay airport by John McLinden via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.