NewSpace People Interview with Orbital Access

What Is the Background of the Top Management of Orbital Access?

Aviation runs in the family of CEO Stuart McIntyre whose grandfather, together with the Duke of Hamilton, became the first aviator to fly over the summit of Mount Everest. He studied aeronautical engineering with management and has worked in the aerospace industry for a number of years for companies such as BAE Systems, Caledonian Airmotive, and Jetstream Aircraft Prestwick. He also gained experience outside the aerospace industry as CEO at medical device manufacturer Microsulis Medical. Chairman Chris Geoghegan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace industry having spent most of his career in the commercial division of BAE Systems, where his last role was that of chief operating officer.

What Is the Core Product or Service of Orbital Access?

Orbital Access is developing a service that will launch small payloads of up to 500kg into orbit from a global network of horizontal take-off and landing spaceports. The development is part of the Future UK Small Payload Launcher (FSPLUK) project that has been supported by both ESA and the UK Space Agency. To put satellites into orbit, the company’s Orbital 500R system will use a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, wide-body jet airliner as its carrier aircraft. The MD-11 will take-off from a runway like any conventional aeroplane, with a launch vehicle attached to the underside of its fuselage. When it reaches the required altitude, the launch vehicle will detach and thrust the payload into orbit, with the first stage of the vehicle returning to Earth so it can be reused.

In addition to launching small satellites the company has plans for a micro-gravity programme that will involve flying conventional aircrafts in extended parabolic flightpaths, which would produce a period of zero-gravity in the cabin, giving up to 20 or 30 seconds of weightlessness. Orbital Access will also ferry passengers in the aerospace industry and cargo between new and existing spaceports around the world.

What Is the Unique Selling Point of Orbital Access to Its Market Sector?

What all smallsat operators need to be successful and satisfy their customer's thirst for more data from space is a cheaper, more flexible and faster way to get their equipment into orbit. A dedicated launch system like the Orbital 500R will have a significant impact on the industry by providing more primary payloads, reaching orbits that would normally be too expensive and far greater launch availability. And not just for the UK government and UK customers but for governments and commercial business all over the world. By capitalising on the existing capabilities and galvanising available space technologies in the UK we will be able to develop the system to ensure that we are able to provide launch services at very competitive rates and a greater economic dividend.

Further into the future, Orbital Access also plans for services beyond our Orbital 500R system – which aims to bring a viable launch system into service by 2020/21 – and introduce a fully-reusable system in 2030.

How Does Orbital Access Disrupt the Competitive Environment of Its Market with Its Product/Service?

Limited opportunities and access to put satellites into orbit remain a problem for many companies, both new and established. Using our services, small satellite operators will be able save on launch cost, have greater flexibility, choice of inclination and orbit and higher cadence. Today most companies in the small satellite industry that want to send up payloads up to 500kg are bound to one of the few traditional launch pads for vertical launches with massive rockets. They have to ride piggy back on other governmental or commercial launches. Lacking control in choosing a launch date with a delay of up to a year and a half, launch site and the orbital elevation and inclination of the satellite. With the network of spaceports we are developing we will be able to offer launch services closer to the point of payload origin, resulting in further savings on transport cost.

What Are the Growth Objectives of Orbital Access over the next 5 Years?

We expect to see strong growth for the satellite production, launch and applications market. 2016 saw the launch of 269 small satellites, which although more than any previous year in history is only a sign of what's in store over the next decades. By 2022 we already expect to see four times that number. The fact is the smallsat business is outpacing the launch vehicle market by far and that gap is going to increase immensely. Most if not all launch providers have a huge backlog of missions. A huge opportunity for our services.

From next year onwards the largest drivers of this future growth are the mega-constellations such as OneWeb, SpaceX and Planet Labs. OneWeb is planning to create a satellite fleet of up to 2,000 satellites (648 initially) and SpaceX another 4000. Launching these fleets into orbit is still the most costly part of such a project.

While modern small satellites are much cheaper, the lifespan of these satellites are also shorter – between five to eight years. Consequently they need to be regularly replenished, which also require more dedicated launch services.

What Competitive Changes Does Orbital Access Envisage Within Its Key Markets over the next 5 Years?

With the rise of these new generation of dedicated two-stage-to-orbit launchers comes a new network of launch sites or spaceports for horizontal take-off and landing. Currently only ten such licensed spaceports exist in the world and all of them in the US. The development of new spaceports across the globe becomes an essential element to further reduce cost, by avoiding costly transport of shipping satellites and assembly parts to far flung launch pads in the USA, French Guiana, China or Russia. Bearing in mind that the highest growth in the industry is predicted to be in the Rest-of-the-World region.

Countries all over the world from Australia to South Africa, Sweden and Singapore are already looking into developing their own small payload design manufacturing capabilities. We are offering them the chance of operating their own spaceports and use our systems to provide launch capacity. Using an existing air field to launch from means they can avoid the massive costs of having to invest in and build the equivalent of a Kennedy Space Center. This prospect of being the host to a local cluster of the internationally flourishing aerospace industry and being able to offer launch services is a very real one.

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