Launch & Propulsion
The benefits of Launch and Propulsion technologies to the UK economy
Space Transportation covers both delivery of objects (people, spacecraft, consumables) into Earth orbit, and the transfer of objects already in orbit between locations. This is primarily between different Earth orbits, but increasingly the world’s space faring nations are sending probes to our Moon, Mars and beyond. Regardless of the destination, propulsion technology including are essential for timely efficient and affordable space transportation to take place.
High thrust propulsion releases stored energy of oxidisers and fuels to create high temperature gases in a combustion chamber made of specialist materials which can then be directed by a nozzle to supersonic velocities. Performance can be increased by use of (turbo)pumps to raise combustion pressure. Additive layer manufacturing techniques are being trialled for key components. Storage of propellants, which may be cryogenic, in lightweight robust and affordable pressure vessels is a major technical driver for high thrust chemical propulsion. UK design, manufacturing and test skills in these areas are national enablers and can be highly exportable.
Low thrust propulsion for in-space transportation is a rapidly growing market, and approaches include both stored energy (chemical) propulsion and electrically driven propulsion. Electric propulsion can be further divided into electrothermal, using electrical heating of propellants, electromagnetic, using magnetic/electric fields to accelerate plasma, or electrostatic, accelerating an ionised propellant using purely electric fields.
Almost all spacecraft require some form of propulsion, and electric propulsion due to its high efficiency is increasingly dominating new space projects. However, many new applications such as planetary landing, and in-orbit debris removal require both low and high thrust, and high efficiency (Isp). Rapid in space transportation, which is constrained by the low thrust of electric propulsion is also sought by commercial spacecraft and human carrying vehicles which will need regular, efficient access to the Lunar Gateway and beyond.
UK companies build components, subsystems & propulsion systems; high & low thrust engines; chemical & electric propulsion. The UK also offers numerous sea level and high altitude plus high vacuum test facilities, suited to chemical propulsion up to around 30kN (SL) and 2kN (vacuum), and electric propulsion up to 500mN thrust levels.
Between 2016 and 2021 the UK government invested over £4M in facilities to test chemical thrusters up to 2kN under vacuum at the Westcott site, which also offers world class capabilities in propellant manufacture, characterisation & environmental testing. Westcott is also the production site of the Leros series of small thrusters & apogee engines, delivering unparalleled performance as far as Jupiter and in the near future for Mars Sample Return. Commercial companies such as Orbex & Skyrora have also invested significantly in high thrust engine test facilities in Scotland to support their launch vehicles.
Electric Propulsion, EP Test & Diagnostics
The UK has a long heritage in electric propulsion, having developed early gridded engines, with several of the most recent T6 thrusters en-route to Mercury on the ESA Bepi-Colombo science mission. Research into next generation electric propulsion continues at universities with Southampton, Imperial, Surrey and UCL having vacuum test chambers, supporting numerous commercial companies developing EP for many space missions.
Did you know?
The UK Space Propulsion Working Group aims to enhance the competitiveness of UK developed space propulsion systems globally, and has provided a forum for collaboration between academia, government & industry with regular meetings since it formed in 2010.
$10-50k/kg for spacecraft delivered to Low Earth Orbits. Prices increase for delivery to higher orbits / deep space.
Full-service rocket propulsion testing costs start at £2000/day (sea level testing) for multi-kN thrust engines. Westcott and university facilities can also offer low & high thrust vacuum testing, plasma diagnostics, and ultra-fast multi-channel data acquisition.
UK companies are developing tomorrow’s space propulsion and launch vehicle solutions, including large composite tanks for cryogenic propellants, ultra-high thrust electric propulsion, and engines for planetary landing missions.