Updated: Aug 3
As space exploration continues to advance, the importance of developing efficient and reliable spaceports and launch infrastructure cannot be overstated. In this article, we will delve into the current state of spaceport development, the benefits of various launch methods, and the potential environmental and economic impacts of these projects. We will also explore lessons that can be learned from existing spaceports and the potential future of the industry.
The Growth of Space Launches and the Need for New Infrastructure
In 2022, there was a record number of space launches, with 180 successful orbital missions carried out. This represented a 32% increase from the previous year, which saw 135 launches. As the number of orbital launches continues to rise, the demand for efficient and reliable spaceports and launch infrastructure grows as well.
Europe, in particular, has experienced a decline in its number of launches in recent years. This can be attributed to the decision to end cooperation with Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, due to Russia's aggression against Ukraine. As a result, European countries have been prompted to focus on developing their own space launch infrastructure to regain their former positions within the global space industry.
Vertical Launches and Polar Proximity Benefits
Vertical rocket launches are the classic method of delivering payloads into orbit. Rockets are placed on a launch pad perpendicular to the Earth, and the jet thrust created by the propulsion engines allows the rocket to overcome gravity and carry its cargo into orbit. Vertical launches are particularly advantageous for sending large volumes of payloads into orbits above Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Ariane 6 launch complex at Europe's Spaceport. (Image credit: ESA)
Several countries, including Sweden and Norway, are actively developing new sites for vertical launches. For example, Sweden's National Space Agency (SNSA) opened the Esrange Space Centre in 2023, which is ideally located for launching small satellites and cubesats into standardized polar orbits due to its high northern latitude. Norway is also working on modernizing its Andøya Space Center to accommodate scientific activities and meteorological monitoring.
Great Britain is also working on the construction of polar vertical take-off spaceports, with locations in Cornwall and Scotland's Shetland Islands. These spaceports could provide licenses for space launches and contribute to the overall growth of the European space industry.
Horizontal Launches and the Adaptation of Airports
Horizontal launches are an alternative method for sending payloads into orbit, particularly for satellites operating in lower orbits. In this method, rockets are launched from onboard a specialized aircraft modified for space launches. This approach allows for cost savings and reduced environmental impact, as less fuel is consumed and fewer emissions are released.
Many spaceports designed for horizontal launches are modified runways from existing airports. These facilities can accommodate not only traditional aircraft but also suborbital and space vehicles. Examples of horizontal launch spaceports include the London-based Astraius, which plans to use an American C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft for its first orbital mission in 2024, and the Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, modified by Virgin Orbit for its LauncherOne rocket launches.
Sea Launch launches a rocket from a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean. (Image credit: Sea Launch)
Hybrid Launch Methods and Space Shuttles
Hybrid launch methods, which combine elements of both vertical and horizontal launches, have also been used throughout the history of space exploration. NASA's Space Shuttles, which began carrying out manned space missions in the 1980s, were launched into orbit using vertical take-off and booster rockets. After completing their missions, the shuttles would descend from orbit and execute an automated horizontal landing on a runway, similar to an airplane.
Boeing's unmanned X-37B spacecraft is another example of a hybrid launch system. The spacecraft is launched into orbit using a booster rocket and can remain in orbit for extended periods of time before returning to Earth and landing horizontally.
Environmental Impacts of Spaceport Development Projects
As spaceport development projects continue to expand, concerns about their potential environmental impacts have arisen. Some of the primary areas of concern include air pollution, water pollution, and the disturbance of local wildlife habitats.
Air pollution is a significant issue, as rockets generate large amounts of exhaust and other emissions that can negatively affect air quality. Noise pollution from rocket launches can also disrupt local wildlife and nearby communities.
Water pollution is another concern, as rocket fuel and other chemicals used in the launch process can contaminate nearby rivers and oceans. Additionally, the construction of spaceports requires large amounts of water, which can negatively impact local ecosystems.
SpaceX, among other companies, has pledged to take steps to mitigate the environmental impacts of their spaceports by using cleaner fuels, reducing noise pollution, and working with local communities to ensure environmentally responsible construction.
The H3 Launch Vehicle is Japan's new mainstay launch vehicle. (Image credit: JAXA)
Economic Benefits of Spaceport Development
Spaceport development projects can bring significant economic benefits to local communities, including new jobs, increased investment, and improved infrastructure. For example, SpaceX's spaceport in South Texas is expected to create over 800 new jobs and attract additional businesses to the area, resulting in an estimated $350 million in investment.
The development of spaceports can also foster economic growth and open up new opportunities for collaboration between businesses and governments in space exploration and research. As more companies invest in the space industry and develop advanced technologies, new products and services will emerge, further benefiting the global economy.
Lessons from Spaceport America
Spaceport America, located in New Mexico, was the world's first spaceport exclusively for private aerospace companies. Its development and operation demonstrate the importance of financing specialized sites for commercial launches, as it has contributed to the creation of innovative space launch technologies and moved the entire space industry forward.
For Europe, the development of a space hub like Spaceport America could lead to the emergence of European startups that can compete with the American giants of the industry. Investing in specialized spaceports and launch infrastructure is crucial for the future success of the European space sector.
Launch Complex 1, the world’s first and only private orbital launch site. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)
The Future of Spaceports and Launch Infrastructure
The future of spaceports and launch infrastructure will likely be shaped by continued advancements in technology and the growing demand for efficient and environmentally friendly launch methods. As more countries invest in the development of their own spaceports and launch infrastructure, competition within the industry will increase, potentially driving further innovation and cost reductions.
In addition, the expansion of the commercial space sector will likely lead to new partnerships and collaborations between private companies, governments, and international organizations. This could result in the creation of new products and services, as well as the development of more advanced technologies for space exploration.
Ultimately, the continued growth of the space industry and the development of new spaceports and launch infrastructure will play a vital role in shaping the future of space exploration, making it more accessible and sustainable than ever before.
In conclusion, the development of spaceports and launch infrastructure is an essential component of the growing space industry. As more countries invest in their own spaceports and launch infrastructure, new technologies and methods for launching payloads into orbit will emerge, making space exploration more efficient, environmentally friendly, and accessible than ever before. By learning from existing spaceports and investing in specialized infrastructure, countries can help drive innovation, foster economic growth, and secure their place in the future of space exploration.