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The following is the research carried out by the government to get to the selection point. The full review and conclusions can be downloaded as PDF files on our ‘Government’ page.

Feasible sites in the UK

We have reviewed all civil and military aerodromes within the UK to identify those that meet these fundamental criteria of runway length, local airspace complexity and population density. Firstly, we looked for aerodromes that already have a runway of sufficient length for spaceplane operations, or where the runway could be extended. There are 46 of these. Some, however, are not currently operational and were ruled out.

We then looked at the civilian aerodromes and their aircraft movement rates which ruled out many of the 46; for example, the two UK aerodromes with the longest runways are Heathrow and Gatwick. Segregating airspace and spaceplane operations on the ground at these and a number of other civil aerodromes would be wholly impractical.

Our analysis left 26 potential sites where the runway is long enough, or could be extended, and where airspace could potentially be segregated to allow spaceplane operations. Of the 26, several are in or near to areas of relatively high population. Eighteen are military aerodromes, hence could only be used with the agreement of the MOD: although the MOD has been observing the Review, and has indicated that it is supportive of the initiative, no formal agreement has yet been sought for the use of military aerodromes for spaceplane operations, and how they might be integrated with the military operations. Significant further study would be required, based on assumptions about spaceplane operations, to assess the viability of using a currently active military base while minimising any impact on its operations. This further study may result in some military aerodromes being removed from the list. To allow sub-orbital operations in the near future, possible locations should be selected from the identified list and further investigations carried out as to their viability. Government will need to agree a process for how sites would be selected.

As set out earlier, it is anticipated that initial spaceplane operations in the UK may take place under a wet lease type arrangement. This means that the FAA AST will require operators to meet certain safety criteria, and in particular carry out an expected casualty analysis. The result of this analysis needs to demonstrate that operations are safer than the minimum standards stated by the FAA AST; to date, this has resulted in the FAA AST licensing operations only in areas of very low population density such as desert or coastal locations. This would imply that an initial UK spaceport would best be established at a coastal location. In order to ensure the safety of the uninvolved general public and to enable initial operations under a wet lease type arrangement to take place in line with FAA AST launch site licensing requirements, the Review strongly recommends that a UK spaceport should be established at a coastal location.

This initial assumption again reduces the list of potential sites from which sub-orbital operations could occur to eight.

Of these eight:

..one, Campbeltown Airport, has a runway potentially over 3,000 metres long;

..four – Glasgow Prestwick Airport, Newquay Cornwall, RAF Leuchars and RAF Lossiemouth – have a runway between 2,500 metres and 3,000 metres long, so would require a runway extension to allow spaceplane operations; and

..the other three, indicated by triangles, have a runway between 2,200 metres and 2,500 metres long. Each would, therefore, need a significant runway extension that would considerable investment. One of these, Llanbedr, is unlicensed at the time of writing, so – if recommendation 17 above was followed – it would also need to reapply for a CAA licence or EASA certification, so that appropriate aerodrome safety regulation could be provided.

Runway extension and aerodrome expansion would need to be carried out through the normal development and planning procedures and according to the timescales related to those procedures. Consideration will also have to be given to the indirect costs of disruption to normal operations during any runway extension engineering works, which could take several months to complete.

In the future, with a better understanding of sub-orbital spaceplane safety performance and the possibility of the developments of suitable certification codes, it may be possible to relax this coastal location requirement.

However, a coastal location also helps to meet some of the environmental issues discussed below. It should be noted that whilst possible locations have been identified, no detailed discussions have taken place with existing civil or military aerodrome or site operators to ascertain their appetite for sub-orbital operations.

Meteorological factors

Having identified sites that meet the key criteria around runway length and airspace complexity, the selection of the right location for a UK spaceport will involve a more detailed review of the meteorological factors. Key issues include hours of sunshine (as an indicator of cloud cover), wind speed and rainfall.

There will be different requirements in the acceptable meteorological criteria for each commercial space operation and their respective spaceplanes. These criteria will differ with respect to cloud cover, wind speed, precipitation and temperatures.

Early indicators, which need to be confirmed, suggest that initial spaceplane operations will have limiting crosswind requirements. Runway orientation will be an important factor: a runway oriented into the prevailing wind (typically from the south west in the UK) will allow more opportunities to operate. In addition to low-level wind speeds, upper-air wind speeds are important when planning the flight profile.

Given that the first entrants to the sub-orbital market are expecting to offer the ‘view from space’ as an integral element of the spaceflight experience, they will also require weather conditions appropriate to providing that view. Sub-orbital flights with a scientific payload may have less restrictive weather criteria.

In general, for sub-orbital flights that are limited by cloud cover and wind speeds, locations in Scotland are likely to offer fewer hours of potential flight operations than locations further south in the UK. This is because, generally, hours of sunshine are fewer (cloud cover is greater), rainfall is higher and wind speeds are greater. The more challenging meteorological environment in these locations is, therefore, very likely to impact on the economic potential and viability of operations in these locations. Once sub-orbital spaceplane operators have confirmed their meteorological operating criteria, further in-depth investigation of these eight aerodromes can take place: the meteorological requirements for spaceplane operations may reduce the number of potential sites further.

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