The UK is looking at building its own commercial spaceport, to take advantage of the booming UK space industry.
The country is in a good position to seize the initiative on commercial spaceflight via spaceplanes, as it has been active in this sector, science minister David Willetts said on Tuesday. By contrast, the US and Russia appear to be continuing to develop rocket technologies, such as SpaceX and Soyuz.
However, a review of UK aerospace rules must take place first, Willetts noted.
"But at present, in my view, Europe is not ready to grab this opportunity — and we must not lose out. We must formulate a regulatory framework that will allow reusable aircraft-type launchers to operate here," he said.
Willetts said the next step is to determine what the UK needs to do to be ready. As part of the plans, the government will look at the certification needed for commercial spacecraft and define the "essential characteristics of an operational spaceport", he said.
The British space industry is bucking economic trends. It was worth £9.1bn to the UK economy in 2010/11, and provided 29,000 jobs, according to a report released by Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on Tuesday.
"Space is one of the UK's key high-tech growth industries," Willetts said. "I fully expect this growth trajectory to continue, as UK industry breaks into new markets and seizes more export opportunities."
British technologies "could be game changers" in the space industry, according to Willetts. For example, Reactive Technologies is developing the Skylon, a spaceplane with dual jet and rocket boosters. It will be able to fly five times the speed of sound in the Earth's atmosphere, and get to Mach 25 to reach orbit, according to the manufacturer. On Tuesday, the company revealed it had successfully completed engine-cooling tests.
Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, plans to offer suborbital spaceflights from a variety of locations before the end of next year, the company said on Tuesday. It has accepted deposits from 529 future passengers for suborbital flights on its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. Virgin Galactic announced 'LauncherOne', a satellite delivery rocket, at the same event.
The groundwork for the spaceport is not sufficiently advanced to discuss its possible location, a BIS spokesman told ZDNet.
"These are the first steps in trying to make a UK spaceport a reality," the spokesman said.
BIS will work with the Department for Transport (DfT) on regulatory formulation, spaceplane certification and spaceport characteristics.