Going up – sideways
I’ve often been asked about the plans for a space launch site in west Wales, using a “horizontal launch”, a term that most of us find hard to comprehend. After all, don’t rockets go “straight up”?
Horizontal space launch refers to the concept of launching a spacecraft horizontally from an aircraft or a runway, as opposed to the traditional vertical launch from a launch pad or a rocket platform. While horizontal space launch is not as commonly used as vertical launch, there are some potential benefits to this approach:
- Flexibility: Horizontal launch systems have the advantage of being able to take off from conventional runways, allowing for more flexibility in choosing launch locations. This reduces the need for specialised launch infrastructure and can increase the number of available launch sites.
- Reusability: Horizontal launch systems can incorporate reusable components, similar to how some rockets can land vertically and be reused. Reusability can significantly reduce the cost of space launches by eliminating the need to build new launch vehicles for each mission.
- Aircraft Carrier Launch: Launching from a high-altitude aircraft carrier, such as a modified aeroplane, allows for more efficient fuel use since the launch vehicle does not need to climb through the dense lower atmosphere. This can result in fuel savings and potentially enable the launch of larger payloads or increased launch frequency. (This was the drive behind the recent Virgin Orbit launch plan from Cornwall.)
- Abort and Recovery Options: Horizontal launch systems offer the possibility of aborting a launch and returning the spacecraft to the runway or landing site in case of an anomaly or emergency. This can enhance crew safety and mission success rates.
- Reduced Environmental Impact: Horizontal launches can minimize the environmental impact compared to vertical launches. The emissions and sonic booms associated with vertical launches can be mitigated or avoided altogether with a horizontal launch approach.
- Integration with Aircraft Technology: Leveraging existing aircraft technologies and infrastructure can lead to cost savings and efficiency improvements. Additionally, advancements in aircraft technologies, such as hypersonic capabilities or air-breathing propulsion systems, can be utilized in horizontal launch systems.
It’s important to note that horizontal space launch systems are still under development and face technical challenges. The choice between horizontal and vertical launch methods depends on various factors, including mission requirements, payload size, cost considerations, and available technologies. But there certainly is scope for horizontal launch from the west coast of Wales.