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The strategic edge of sovereign space launch

Julia C Balm

PhD candidate

12 August 2022

Space launch has become increasingly accessible. From 14 orbital launches in 1959 to 132 orbital launches in 2021, there are now 28 spaceports that have supported orbital space launch. Proliferated interest in spaceports demonstrates how orbit accessibility fulfils national goals, but it begs the question of why sovereign launch has become such a particularly fashionable capability in national strategies.

While the UK is launching the first commercial launch from Western Europe this summer, a clear milestone in launch pad history, this article reviews why space launch matters, how it impacts national security and strategy, and why launch pads are going vogue. 

Launch sites are painted across the world, an ambition that continues to grow in scale, as demonstrated by proposed orbital launch sites such as Xiangshan’s Ningbo, Biak Island, Canary Islands, Shiloh Spaceport, and Michigan Spaceport, to name a few. Not only do launch pads currently operate on coastal and island areas, high and low altitudes, and diverse trajectories, but China has also begun operation on its first sea launch site.

Defence space strategies (DSS) offer a chance to recalibrate partnerships and priorities, as demonstrated by the recently released: UK DSS in 2022, Australia’s DSS in 2022, China’s 2022 White Paper, the US DSS in 2020, and the French DSS in 2019. As NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept highlighted, it is increasingly important to maintain the “secure use of and unfettered access to space.”

Visualising soft power

Because the critical space infrastructure that underpins our everyday activities is not something visible with bare eyes, space security can feel like a distant problem. It can be hard to understand the importance of a country’s space budget when there are other domestic budgetary demands. Space security can appear so far out of reach that it’s hard to relate to. Launch gives the public a chance to engage with space security in a real and tangible way, as live crowds and those at home can watch the countdown and cheer on a satellite blast-off into orbit. This also highlights state power and soft power on the world stage, beyond the profiting space economy and burgeoning satellite market, and is a tool of asserting technological and military superiority in the competitive domain.

Launching geostrategy

A major attraction of sovereign launch is that not all launch is created equally. Proximity to the equator presents a natural selection for specific space launch capabilities. Horizontal and vertical launch payload capacity is calculated according to one’s geography, where inclination and the latitude of a spaceport are relevant factors for what capability can be launched. The closer a launch site is to the equator, the less fuel is needed to launch satellites into orbit because the rate of rotation for the Earth’s equator creates a velocity speed thrust for the rocket; this allows for a larger payload on the rocket. Higher latitudes, on the other hand, benefit from being able to place satellites into orbits that pass over the poles, allowing for a satellite to observe a fixed point on Earth. The geographic uniqueness of location impacts the strategic development of what specific capabilities can be gained from a given launch, whether it be launching into a specific orbit or launching a heavier payload and carrying capacity. For example, Scotland has access to sun synchronous orbits, an orbit travelling over polar regions, meaning its launch window can forego flying above populated land, de-risking the potential for a failed rocket to impact population zones.

In similar geographical areas, there is also a legitimate fear that regional competitors will become more commercially attractive and outcompete in the global space economy. Australia feels this imminent pressure with New Zealand’s neighbouring global space market where launch services like Rocket Lab are even planning for lunar orbit. Is it necessary for space powers to have sovereign launch to outcompete neighbouring capabilities? In terms of reputation, market attraction, and capabilities gained, there’s a significant strategic edge to consider.

The value of dual commercial & national security use

Launch is a valuable capability for its commercial edge, asset resilience and industrial development. Making launches more reliable, faster, smarter, and cost-effective means building a technical capacity to support both commercial and government needs from the ground up. As the space economy is a major factor in commercial launch motivations, the 2022 Global Space Economy 2nd Edition projects that the global space economy will reach US$1.25 trillion by 2030.

Since launches won’t be happening every day of every year, the massive infrastructure required for launch is only really in use for a portion of the time that it exists. Spaceports serve both sides of the coin where launch’s dual use capacity for commercial and national security not only opens opportunities for heightened resiliency, but also for an optimisation of investment. This synergy presents an opportunity to expand space power in a way that supports industry while supporting national priorities. By leveraging the combined interests of civil and national security demands, launch rates are utilised in a way that can offset losses when pad capacity is not maximised. Ride-shares, with multiple investors on a single launch, extend launch pad use and leverage an ability to diversify spaceport use by distributing payload mass.

Resiliency is the key challenge

How an adversary may target one’s accessibility to assets can amount in various kinetic and non kinetic counterspace tactics; in this fissile domain, it’s important to be a resilient actor, able to act in a short decision timeline. Space architecture must therefore have resilient capabilities at a speed of relevance. A responsive launch capability with speed and flexibility is a golden standard for national security and resiliency with room for future development. The ability to swiftly launch satellites and gain those rapidly added space capabilities is an area the US Space Force has certainly demonstrated keen interest in.

Launching a space payload on short notice means foregoing typical launch campaigns that last from weeks to months in favour of stocking preassembled space launch vehicles (SLV) that are ready to deploy. Decreasing launch costs paired with advances in technology make this storable pre-produced design possible, increasing the ability for quick reconstitution and capability recovery. In terms of the attractiveness of sovereignty in resilience, the recent Roscosmos withdrawal of OneWeb satellites from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in March demonstrates where international collaboration can be great in the best of times but in times of conflict, the ability to launch independently would offer a resilient alternative.

UK sovereign launch: a frontrunner in Western Europe

While the UK successfully launched a satellite into orbit in 1971 via a sovereign developed launch vehicle, it swiftly abandoned this capability in favour of less costly arrangements with other states. Initially returning to this capability in the 2018 Space Industry Act, the UK furthered this development in May 2021 by preparing new regulations for commercial space launches from UK soil, paving the way for seven prospective spaceport sites across Great Britain.

This summer will see the UK’s first commercial satellite launch from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay. In this partnership between the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the UK’s Ministry of Defence (UK MOD), Virgin Orbit will send nine multinational rideshares into orbit via the LauncherOne small launch platform. This launch on a modified Boeing 747 carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, includes two of the UK MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) Prometheus-2 CubeSats, weighing less than 2kg, these miniaturised satellites are about the size of a Rubik’s cube and provide more affordable access to space. The CubeSats will monitor radio signals and conduct imaging work. These CubeSats will support the Minerva constellation, a programme focussed on UK data processing and the integration of space with land, air, sea and cyber technologies in low Earth Orbit (LEO). The ability to launch smaller payloads and CubeSats are a development from the 1990s and a new capability the UK can capitalise on which did not exist in the 1971 world, a world where launching satellites from British soil was financially unsound.

Fundamentally, the UK’s re-establishment of sovereign launch is paving the way for commercial launch in Western Europe. Opening the door for others to join the spaceport club means not only more commercial and national security opportunities, but also the numerous opportunities that come with more satellites in orbit.

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Julia Balm

Julia Balm

Research Associate

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