Sensemaker: RAF Space Command

Friday 20 November 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico is to be demolished after 57 years.
  • Trump invited two Republican legislators from Michigan to the White House to discuss overturning their state’s presidential election result.
  • Shuggie Bain, the debut novel by Douglas Stuart about a benighted Glasgow childhood, won the Booker after being turned down by 32 publishers.

RAF Space Command

There are times when policy announcements send you to sleep and times, like yesterday, when they wake you up. “We will establish… a new RAF Space Command,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons, “launching British satellites and our first rocket from Scotland in 2022”.

Long stories short

  • The giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico is to be demolished after 57 years.
  • Trump invited two Republican legislators from Michigan to the White House to discuss overturning their state’s presidential election result.
  • Shuggie Bain, the debut novel by Douglas Stuart about a benighted Glasgow childhood, won the Booker after being turned down by 32 publishers.

RAF Space Command

There are times when policy announcements send you to sleep and times, like yesterday, when they wake you up. “We will establish… a new RAF Space Command,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons, “launching British satellites and our first rocket from Scotland in 2022”.

Really? Yes. At least, he really said it, in the middle of a pandemic. The idea of an RAF Space Command launching British rockets from Scotland may sound like Top Gear on dexamethasone but as of yesterday it’s officially part of Britain’s new defence posture. Plans are in fact well advanced.

Where? Five spaceport sites in Scotland, plus one in Cornwall, are racing to be the first to launch commercial satellites in Europe. On 21 October, the site initially favoured by the UK Space Agency in Sutherland lost its key funding to another on the remote island of Unst in the Shetland archipelago. In total, three sites in the Highlands and Islands are pursuing vertical launches – the most common way of launching satellites. Those further south are developing horizontal launches, involving planes and runways.

What? The sites hope to launch small commercial satellites, mostly for Earth observation. For example, a two stage vertical launch rocket designed by a firm called Orbex will be 17 metres long and 1.3 metres wide and can carry up to 180kg into a low Earth orbit (compared with 41 tonnes for a Saturn V). In September, the Ferret website reported that the Ministry of Defence also wants to launch surveillance and intelligence-gathering satellites from Sutherland and Shetland. They said that arms firms like BAE Systems, Leonardo, Raytheon and Chemring, hope to use the sites.

Why? Developing domestic space launch sites is one of four components of the UK’s current space strategy. The UK Space sector is already worth £14.8 billion a year, with nearly 40 new companies added to the country’s space sector every year since 2012. In 2018, the Space Industry Act allowed private involvement in spaceflight in the UK for the first time. The government is now putting money behind its goal of capturing 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030. In 2019, the UK Space Agency began investing £374 million per year with the European Space Agency (ESA) to deliver international space programmes, including satellite development.

Why are sites in Scotland favoured? They’re cheaper and safer than the alternatives. Scotland’s sparsely populated northern and coastal landscape makes it well suited for satellites to launch into low Earth orbits without the risk of debris hitting people. Its high latitude is suitable for launching into polar and so-called sun synchronous orbits, which are good for spy and weather satellites. Also, Glasgow manufactures more satellites than anywhere else in Europe.

The sites

  • Shetland Space Centre (vertical launch) is aiming for a fully functional satellite launch site by late 2021. One company, Skyrora, tested a rocket here in June 2020. In October it secured £24 million of funding when the US aerospace and arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin switched its allegiance from Sutherland to Shetland.
  • Sutherland Space Hub (vertical launch): Once the favoured site, the A’Mhoine spaceport was delayed by a small but effective group of local opponents, concerned about the location of the site at the edge of the carbon-sequestering Caithness and Sutherland peatlands, which include the environmentally significant Flow Country. Construction is going ahead even so, planned to start early next year for a 2022 launch. The Danish billionaire couple who are Scotland’s biggest landowners are against it.
  • Spaceport 1 Scolpaig, North Uist (vertical launch): This site also faces local opposition on environmental grounds. It is still aiming for a 2022 launch.
  • Prestwick Spaceport (horizontal launch): the existing airport is trying to gain a spaceport operator’s license. It claims to be leading the race to be the first horizontal launch.
  • Machrihanish (Campbeltown) Spaceport (horizontal launch): Machrihanish Airbase Community Company (MACC), which owns the former RAF airbase plans to create a joint venture with London-based UK Launch Services Ltd (UKLSL), to establish a small rocketry, research and development and training. On 2 September they launched a Raptor Aerospace Kestrel-100LD rocket.
  • Newquay Spaceport (horizontal launch): Cornwall and Virgin Orbit aim for a horizontal launch by 2021. Construction work with a budget of £22m began last month.

Mark Naird, eat your heart out.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Seller X
Here’s a new way to get rich: scan Amazon for third party sellers who are doing well, buy them, and then go out and raise money to enable you to buy more of them. That’s what Berlin-based Seller X has done, and it’s raised a cool $100 million in debt and equity investments over the course of the pandemic. This is seed money; a nine-figure first round. Sifted, the new fintech newsletter, has the scoop. Seller X focuses on “evergreen” items like pet and beauty products that get good reviews. It wants to be “the digital Procter & Gamble”, and come to think of it don’t we all? Presumably the next iteration of this trend is to be the person who scans the people scanning Amazon, and get investors interested in that.


New things technology, science, engineering

Kiwi splashdown
Galling as it may be for Scotland’s space entrepreneurs (see above), others have got there first, and this is not about SpaceX. Rocket Lab, which already has more than a dozen successful launches of its Electron rocket under its belt, recovered a first-stage booster from the Pacific Ocean for the first time yesterday after it blasted off from the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The booster reached orbit, released 30 small satellites and a 3D-printed gnome, and splashed down under a parachute. The idea is eventually to use a helicopter to snag it before it hits the water.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Oxford vaccine ‘robust’
The really important numbers aren’t in yet, and won’t be for at least a few weeks, but the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid vaccine prompts a “robust” immune response even in people over 65. That was the main news from a press briefing yesterday. It will please the elderly and UK officials who have pre-ordered 100 million doses, but a strong immune response is not the same as proof that the vaccine works. That comes only when the blinds in phase three clinical trials under way in the US, South Africa and Brazil are removed to show how many of those infected with Covid had the jab and how many had a placebo. Interim efficacy results will be available once 53 confirmed infections are confirmed among the trials’ subjects. That should be before Christmas. Fingers crossed.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Warming and disease
Climate change is exposing wildlife to new diseases, which could jump to humans. A study of 1,381 species published today in Science finds that those adapted to cold climates are already suffering from a surge in infectious diseases associated with warm climates as those diseases move to higher latitudes and altitudes. Amphibians, fish and insects are most at risk. Warm-blooded mammals can adapt better but are still vulnerable to parasites creeping north, and up. And 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in humans have a wildlife origin. Another reason, if one were needed, to halt this global warming thing right now.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

American democracy
The US presidential election was more than two weeks ago. Georgia has completed a full recount. Biden’s lead there shrank by 2,000 votes to 12,000 because of uncounted votes found in four counties, but the Associated Press has called the state for Biden and his win will be certified today. He will be the next president but Trump still hasn’t conceded even though, of about 30 legal challenges his team have filed in states he lost, 19 have been rejected, settled or withdrawn and all but one of the others are awaiting a court response. No concrete evidence of large-scale voter fraud has been presented anywhere but he will meet two senior Michigan Republicans today, reportedly to float a plan to sabotage certification of their state’s result on Monday. Biden won there by 154,000 votes. Trump’s efforts, Biden says, send “a horrible message about who we are as a country”. Maybe. But the election more broadly sends a different message and a more uplifting one.

opinion: chris cook

This code is too easy to break

The rules for ministerial behaviour aren’t rules at all. All that really matters is what the prime minister thinks

Priti Patel, the home secretary, is currently defending herself from allegations that she bullied Home Office staff. Sir Philip Rutnam, her permanent secretary, resigned on account of her behaviour last year. It’s expected that the home secretary will be found to have breached the “ministerial code” – the document in British public life that purports to set rules for people who ascend from the legislature into public executive office.

Sir Philip said that Patel created a “climate of fear” inside the department. According to the BBC, a civil service review of his allegations found that the “home secretary had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect”. This is not a high bar: the ministerial code says “harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour” will not be tolerated.

Prime ministers have, in the past, ordered investigations into breaches of the rules as a prelude to firing errant ministers. That is not expected to happen this week; Patel is expected to remain.

But this week’s events may be significant within Whitehall and Westminster if they serve to clarify that the ministerial code has no real force or power. It is, at root, a political document – drawn up by the executive, for the benefit of the executive.

The code is not new: It was first published in 1992 and took its current name in 1997. Its construction and precise meaning has been contested and clarified in court. But it is worth being clear about what the ministerial code actually does. It does not have an adjudication system. There is no mechanism by which conclusions can be drawn and ministerial firings enforced. There is no recourse if someone breaches the code. It says:

“Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. However, Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister.”

This is the key point: breaching the rules has no consequence, unless the prime minister wants to fire you. But that is true anyway. So being in breach of the rules has no consequence. Without the code, the fact that ministerial office is just held at the prime minister’s whim would be clearer.

The only real effects of the code are external: it encourages people to take simple political questions – Has this person acted honorably? Is this conduct becoming of a minister? – and judge them against a set of rigid rules. The net effect of the ministerial code has been to create loopholes, not to close them. 

Suella Braverman, the attorney general, breached the code earlier this year. Her support of the Internal Market Bill – a bill that proposed breaching the Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the European Union and the UK – meant she supported breaking the law. But, the Guardian tells us, there was a dispute inside government about the meaning of the word “law” in the Code – and whether “law” should be taken to meet “all law”. 
This gets to a core problem with British public life: there are institutions intended to hold the government in place. There are lots of rules and conventions. They often look like they might do something – but they do not restrain governments with majorities. It would be better not to rely on them. If a minister can be found to have bullied a senior civil servant with no consequence, that would be rendered undeniable.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ellen Halliday
@ellen_halliday

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell