A British spaceport could be launching crafts into space within five years, the science minister has said.
David Willetts announced yesterday that a group of space, defence, business and transport experts has been formed to find a suitable base for the launch site.
The spaceport could be operational as early as 2019 to take advantage of a new era in space tourism, with Mr Willetts saying he hoped Virgin Galactic would take off from the new site.
It will also act as a satellite launch centre.
Although no sites have been earmarked, Mr Willetts said it was unlikely the spaceport would be in south east England.
Previous suggestions have included Wales, the West Country, and Scotland although it would need to be built near a coastal area for safety.
“We want an area where there is not much civil airspace, where it is not very busy,” said Mr Willetts.
“It might be smaller airports, it might be underused or disused RAF airfields.
“We’re starting to look at relatively remote parts of the country.
“We’re rediscovering our great tradition of developing space vehicles and having a spaceport where we can launch will be part of that long term plan.”
Currently Britain has no space launch facilities, even for unmanned rockets. When British astronaut Tim Peake joins the International Space Station next year he will launch from either French Guiana or Kazahkstan.
Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company, will begin launches from New Mexico in the US, but it is likely the business will want a base in Europe.
Sweden has already declared an interest in making its far northern town of Kiruna into a European spaceport.
The spaceport is also likely to be a base for the Sylon spaceplane being developed by Reaction Engines, a private British company.
The government has already invested £60 million in the company which has designed a revolutionary ‘air-breathing’ rocket engine which uses oxygen from the atmosphere.
Yesterday a cross-Government National Space Flight Coordination Group was set up to gather investment and find a site. It will report its initial findings in July.
The government made the announcements in response to an industry report published last year called Space Innovations and Growth Strategy Action Plan.
It also backed plans for a four-fold expansion of the UK space industry to £40bn by 2030.
There will also be a simplification of regulations and greater coherence to spur the growth of new space firms.
Mr Willetts said that the space sector could “propel” UK growth.
“Space industries already support 95,000 full time jobs and generate £9.1 billion for the economy each year, and our response to the Growth Action Plan shows our commitment to secure its future growth and realise ambitions to develop a viable UK space port for commercial space flight,” he added.
Dr David Parker, chief executive at the UK Space Agency said that government is working “shoulder-to-shoulder with industry to exploit the full potential of the space sector to grow the economy, deliver more efficient public services and inspire the next generation”.
“At the UK Space Agency, we are particularly focusing on helping the rest of government make best use of the huge increase in real-time data from the Galileo and Sentinel satellites, looking at exciting opportunities such as a UK spaceport, and leading an export drive for UK space products and services.
“Our vision is to make the UK the most attractive location for space businesses to set up and prosper – and I’m convinced we are on our way.”