The UK government has lately put a tremendous amount of effort into re-entering the launch market. It’s been a long and difficult journey, and it’s far from over.
According to a recent report by the UK Space Agency, the space industry in the UK recorded 3.3% annual growth in 2016/2017 while revenue reached almost £15 billion. The global space sector is valued at $360 billion (or £267 billion), meaning the UK’s share is only 5.6%. Over the coming decade, the UK plans to increase its share in the global space market and reach 10% by 2030.
After years of inactivity, the UK space sector seems to be flourishing, government’s number one goal is to start launching rockets from home soil to win back a leading position. The Sutherland cosmodrome in Scotland is expected to become the perfect spot for launches.
Sutherland Spaceport Development
The topic of building a spaceport in the UK has been discussed for many years. Initially, the plan was to modernize an existing facility such as a former military base or civilian airport. The state wanted to turn one of these objects into a launchpad for suborbital spacecraft. After lengthy debate and discussion, the list of suitable properties was narrowed to six.
In recent years, however, the trend in the launch market has shifted toward ultra-small launch vehicles thanks to the popularity of microsatellites. Therefore, instead of modernizing an existing facility, the British government decided to build a new one. Northern Scotland was chosen as the location.
The government has allocated £2.5 million, which has gone for the development of the Scottish economy. This money is designated for the construction of a new test site for vertical launches of small suborbital vehicles with a northerly trajectory, to be built on the A’ Mhòine Peninsula in the Sutherland region.
In addition to the state grant, Highlands and Islands Enterprise contributed more than £9.8m million for the construction of basic infrastructure. Additionally, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority planned an investment of £5m.
A startup with Danish roots, Orbex, also received grants of £5.5 million from the UK government for the construction of the cosmodrome. The government wants the new cosmodrome to become the main destination for vertical rocket launches due to its favourable landscape and convenient geographic position for launches into low earth orbits. Moreover, a large number of small satellites are produced in nearby Glasgow.
Orbex is known for developing a large number of things including an ultra-small launch vehicle called Prime that is meant to be used for future launches from the Scottish cosmodrome. To make launches from Sutherland possible, Orbex has recently received £18 million in funding from BGF Ventures and Octopus Ventures to build a rocket launcher that will take off from Sutherland.
Orbex and Its Controversial Reputation
Orbex was co-founded by Kristian Bengtson. In 2008, he co-founded Copenhagen Suborbitals together with the notorious Peter Madsen, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a young journalist on board his submarine. At Copenhagen Suborbitals, Kristian and Peter also worked on the failed Mars One project.
This relationship is probably cautioning investors from dealing with Orbex, as evidenced by problems with attracting investments for Moonspike, the predecessor to Orbex. A campaign Moonspike ran on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform between October 1 and November 1, 2015, raised less than £79,000 ($122,000), while the goal of the campaign was £600,000 ($925,000). Failing to meet the funding goal meant Moonspike was unable to receive even the amount pledged. After failing to raise enough money in Denmark, the company’s founders decided to enter the UK market.
In reference to Orbex, you may also remember the story of Catriona Francis, who used to work for the UKSA. Once her department provided funding to Orbex, she got a job at the company without any vacancies being open or announcements made.
Problems with the Sutherland Spaceport
Orbex received the first grant for the construction of the Sutherland cosmodrome back in 2017. Yet despite Orbex’s involvement in the spaceport development process, not much progress can be noticed after four years.
Only at the end of summer 2020 were the final plans for the construction of the cosmodrome accepted, revealing new details. The construction of a cosmodrome in northern Scotland will entail the destruction of a large area of peat bogs, as ecologists claim. Besides, it threatens local wildlife. Environmentalists have filed more than 400 objections to the construction of the cosmodrome.
To tell the truth, Orbex was not the only company with plans for the Sutherland cosmodrome. Lockheed Martin also received a grant from the UKSA to participate. Yet Lockheed Martin left the Sutherland project this October and joined construction on the Shetland Islands.
Orbex remains alone with its financial difficulties, increased by environmental objections and problems with investors’ trust. Still, with £18 million in recently acquired funding, Orbex plans to bring its Prime launch vehicle to market in 2022. Orbex representatives previously scheduled the first launches for 2021, but problems with funding and the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed those plans by over a year.
With a history of failed projects in Europe and financial problems, it’s no wonder Orbex has come to the UK and sought funding here. But did the investors do their homework? Before funding this project, they should carry out serious due diligence. This entails fully testing the business to develop investment scenarios necessary to assess opportunities, identify risks, and plan possible contingencies that were missed during the initial assessment.
Due Diligence Criteria
- Commercial due diligence foresees the company’s market share and takes into account future business prospects. It involves obtaining an independent estimate of the sales forecast.
- A financial audit provides for a deeper assessment of the present state of the business and the identification of its further prospects based on an assessment of a wide variety of data.
- The legal test involves a deep investigation of business documentation (compliance with regulations, registered patents, registration of property rights, etc.). This assessment must reveal all potential legal risks that may harm the business and investors.
- Investigating the founders and leadership involves looking at the bios of top managers and checking their experience with other businesses. This might help to predict if they are serious about the new venture and its prospects.
While £18 million will certainly help Orbex bring its Prime rocket to market, it still doesn’t guarantee a bright future for the Sutherland launch site. The Azores will likely become a new destination for these purposes, and Orbex has already mentioned this location as a backup plan. So, it remains to be seen if the investments in Sutherland development by the UK government will provide the expected return.