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Spaceport Colorado: a Solution for Cost-Effective Launches?

There has been a lot of interest surrounding a potential Colorado spaceport. What would this mean for Colorado’s thriving space industry and the way that spacecraft are launched in the future?
No matter how much we can reduce the cost of building satellites, launching them remains expensive. Given that current launch vehicles were mostly developed for launching traditional larger spacecraft, small satellite launch opportunities are relatively scarce. Dedicated launches are prohibitively expensive. Rideshare or “piggyback” launches are often used but can be difficult to organize, and a reliable and low-cost launch system that will mirror the dramatic shift in cost that small satellites heralded is yet to emerge.

Fortunately this is an area that is currently experiencing a lot of activity. Companies like Space X with their Grasshopper rocket, Reaction Engines, and Virgin Galactic with their reusable “‘space planes” are making leaps and bounds towards establishing reusable, effective and affordable launch systems, as we discussed in our blog on “Chartered flights for satellites.”

Virgin Galactic

Last year, Surrey signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Galactic to look at optimizing our satellites for the LauncherOne vehicle, a collaboration aimed at lowering both the cost of building and the cost of launching small satellites. But even if launch vehicles that take off horizontally like planes prove a success, they won’t be able to take off from normal airports. Launchers have different requirements: longer and wider runways to accommodate their larger size, proximity to resources, but also, for safety reasons, to be a safe distance from people and settlements. The first commercial spaceport, in New Mexico, was built from scratch to suit these needs and was established to host launches for scientific, commercial, and governmental missions, as well as act as a port for future human space travel.

New Mexico Spaceport– Virgin Galactic

As the nation’s second largest aerospace industry and being “a mile closer to space,” it made sense for Colorado to consider a spaceport of its own, and the project has attracted a wealth of media attention. Colorado is a well-established hub for private space and is home to over 400 space-related companies including Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and of course Surrey Satellite, as well as academic institutions such as the University of Colorado, which has produced 20 astronauts over the years. There’s no doubt that a spaceport could cement the state’s already impressive aerospace credentials and attract further development for the industry.

In a different approach to New Mexico, Colorado aims to upgrade the existing infrastructure of Front Range Airport to make it suitable for spacecraft, instead of starting from scratch. At the end of last year, the public sector pledged over $660,000 for the project.  Feasibility studies are currently underway and due for completion at the end of this year. Aerospace activity could begin as early as 2014 at the airport, with the initial focus on a space-pilot training center, as reported by the Denver Post.

Spaceport Colorado

Front Range is currently operating at far below its capacity and therefore has room for launchers as well as aircraft. It is uniquely suited to being upgraded to a spaceport as it is close to the city of Denver and the international links that Denver’s airport provides; yet it is surrounded by farmland, not suburbia, so it’s suitable from a safety standpoint.

The project is still in its infancy; however, even if it is deemed feasible, it will still be a long way off. The project faces many challenges, not least the need for significant private funding. But if it succeeds it could be a great resource for the space industry in Colorado, and the country as a whole. Whatever the future holds for Spaceport Colorado, we’re excited to see a push to explore launch alternatives that could make space and satellite technology more accessible.


23 April 20130 Comments1 Comment

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