Orbital flight artist's impression, 1600x600

Case studies Future UK Small Payload Launcher

Funder & total project value 

UK Space Agency National Space Technology Programme (NSTP-2), Grant funding awarded £250k, Project cost £354,250, May to Dec 2016

Project aim & approach

In 2016, UKSA funded investigations to develop their roadmap for building a space access capability in the UK by 2020. The project had two parallel aims: 1- to develop short and long term technical roadmaps for building national capabilities for reusable launch systems for small payloads, and 2- perform technical feasibility studies on different partially re-usable launch systems concepts. Out of the 5 studies selected, we were the only UK-based network.

A market assessment and forecast model were developed in consultation with UK small to nano-satellite manufacturers. This analysed the commercial feasibility of operating a space launch system in the UK and set system requirements for the technical evaluation.

In parallel, a review and evaluation of key technologies was conducted to feed into the cost modelling. The technical performance of 3 different concepts were analysed using Strathclyde research tools to optimise the vehicle design to minimise the vehicle gross mass for two missions and subject to performance and operational requirements and constraints.

The project capitalises on research by the Aerospace Centre of Excellence into conceptual and preliminary design tools for spaceplanes. This led to the development of a specialised computational multidisciplinary optimisation tool that can optimise the design of the system based on the desired operational performance and constraints, and evaluate/optimise the mission & operational envelope for a specific launch system.


An overall roadmap was produced balancing near term goals of an operational launch system by 2020 and a longer term strategy (2030/2050) on strategic capability building, technology dominance/dependence and improving effectiveness and cost (commercial benefits).

This showed the feasibility, technically and commercially, for a multi-stage, semi-reusable launch system using a carrier aircraft to improve portability.

While based in Prestwick, this expands the potential market to a global-level. Parallel developments are required for UK expertise in novel materials, advanced manufacturing techniques and investment in propulsion systems.

The same launch system can be used for alternate missions, such as a micro- to 0-g scientific test bed, or a flying test bed for SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine), a novel propulsion system in development by Reaction Engines Ltd in the UK. The concept ultimately selected is a multi-stage vehicle design with rocket propulsion designed to inject a 500 kg payload into a nominal 600 km circular polar orbit, with an extended mission targeting the OneWeb constellation of injecting 150 kg payloads into 88.2 deg inclined circular orbits with an altitude of 1,200 km. The main vehicle is a spaceplane design that will allow for glided re-entry/return flight.

The second stage is stored within the main body of the spaceplane, among other benefits this allows for better control of the moments induced by the movement of the centre of gravity though introduces complexity and release issues. An optional, payload-mounted small upper stage can increase the range of possible orbits that can be reached, including the extended mission. The spaceplane will be air-launched from a modified carrier aircraft to increase the type of orbits that can be reached, and improve the flexibility of the system by allowing the transport and recovery of the first stage.

Project publications