New investment in UK spaceflight announced

A UK spaceflight test centre and an air-breathing rocket have moved one step closer following new investment in British space technologies.

Aerial view of Westcott Venture Park, where the National Propulsion Test Facility is to be built. Credit: Westcott Venture park
Published: June 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm

The UK is to build a new space technology facility and develop a revolutionary air-breathing rocket engine following the announcement of investment by the UK and European Space Agencies. The UK Space Agency is investing £4.12m in a National Propulsion Test Facility that will provide Britain with a centre for testing and developing spaceflight technologies.


The centre will be built in Westcott on the site of a former rocket testing area, adding to the facilities that are already there.

It will enable scientists to simulate the high altitude testing of thrusters up to 2,000 Newtons, and develop technologies that could be used for interplanetary travel.

Katherine Courtney, Interim CEO of the UK Space Agency, says:

“Our investment in a National Space Propulsion Facility will add several new capabilities to the UK space sector and build upon what is already a world-class UK space propulsion sector.

“Opening these facilities up to UK companies and academia will allow them to develop and test future propulsion engines.

We hope this will develop the UK’s competitive edge in space propulsion and produce the next generation of propulsion engines.

We hope that UK companies will continue to make successful contributions to international missions, such as the LEROS 1b engine involved in JUNO.”

Also announced this week is a €10 million investment by the European Space Agency (ESA) into SABRE, a rocket engine that uses air from the atmosphere to help it on its journey.

SABRE is a project by private British company Reaction Engines that works by operating in two modes.

Firstly, the rocket engine sucks in oxygen from the atmosphere that combines with on-board liquid hydrogen as fuel to propel it out of the atmosphere.

Once above the atmosphere, the engine then switches to a conventional mode of operation, consuming on-board liquid oxygen.

ESA has invested €10 million in the project, which will supplement the £50 million already put forward by the UK Space Agency.

A deal was agreed between the two agencies this week at the Farnborough International Airshow.

It is hoped that the engine will pave the way for spaceplanes that could take off from conventional runways and fly straight into space, without the need for an extra rocket to lift it out of Earth’s atmosphere.


The next step in the project is a building of a ground demonstrator engine in 2020 to test the functionality of the design.


Iain Todd, BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Iain ToddScience journalist

Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Staff Writer. He fell in love with the night sky when he caught his first glimpse of Orion, aged 10.

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