A business based in the UK that deve­lops space launch facilities and systems plans to set up its European headquarters in Malta.

Orbital Access CEO Stuart McIntyre told The Sunday Times of Malta: “We are setting up our European headquarters here in Malta and we are currently financing that programme. We intend to establish Malta as our headquarters of our operations for Europe and the world.”

Mr McIntyre said the decision to set up a European base in Malta was based on two main considerations: Malta’s excellent location for the launching of satellites, and Brexit.

“The UK is, of course, very good for launching satellites to the north, but is very bad for launching equatorially to the east. And so we came to Malta expressly to look at the development of a launch site at Luqa, for a spaceport, to be able to take our systems off to launch to the east.

“Also, coming to Malta allows us a little bit of balancing of Brexit. It is important that we operate as part of the European space community as much as the world space community. Much of the technology funding for space-related activity comes from the European Union through their Horizon 2020 programme and so it’s important that we find ourselves a European platform to engage with that. Brexit was absolutely a factor in our decision.”

Orbital Access was set up in 2015 in response to a programme in the United Kingdom to develop space launch facilities and systems that allow the UK to launch satellites built in the UK and around the world.

He explains that the launching of satellites would involve a reusable space plane that is slung underneath a conventional wide body aircraft that will come to Luqa for launch operations.

“The system would fly from Luqa over the Mediterranean and then release the space plane which would then take the payloads to their orbits, and the space plane returns to land as an ordinary airplane.”

Mr McIntyre says the Maltese government’s space policy was released a few months ago and Orbital Access is working with both the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) as well as Malta Air Traffic Services.

“We are in discussions with the MCST about collaboration with them and potentially basing our headquarters with them at Esplora (Interactive Science Centre at Bighi), and we are in discussions with MATS (Malta Air Traffic Services) on matters of air traffic control.

“We have been looking at the programme to develop both the legislation and the operations associated with these types of services here in Malta and also the broader opportunity to build a space industrial cluster around Luqa airport integrating the research and academic community and the high technology manufacturing community and allowing the development and growth of a space sector in Malta.”

He explains that the development of a space centre will be a conventional high technology sector with “reasonably conventional manufacturing” for satellites, some hangarage for integrating the launch vehicles and their systems and the opportunity for research and developing satellite applications in Malta to develop new services from space.

“All of these are very achievable opportunities in Malta, and of course, on top of that the climate and the strategic geographic positioning in the Mediterranean provides a wonderful base for space-related aviation services such as micro gravity, parabolic flying and space-flight conditioning flying, so there’s an opportunity for a wide range of space-related services that we can also operate.”

Mr McIntyre says that while evolution of the strategy is one that will take “a number of years to fully implement” it nevertheless starts with actions now.

“We have had discussions with the government around some of the legislative frameworks that would be needed to enable space flight in the international context for Malta. We have also met the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers who expressed a very strong strategic desire to develop these sectors in Malta and we look forward to being a part of that journey.”

Brexit was absolutely a factor in our decision

He said the immediate priority is the development of the legislative framework that will allow the launching to space from Malta, but activities associated with spaceport and space related operations can start almost straight away.

“We intend to set up a range of these services as part of our business, as well as developing a launcher programme, and we intend to bring a number of services here, namely micro gravity flying servi­ces, high G-flying with high-performance aircraft to allow people to experience the G-forces of space flight and also to sell services in other locations, such as centrifuges services in Italy. So we see those services developing reasonably quickly.”

An Orbital 500R launch scene.An Orbital 500R launch scene.

Mr McIntyre points out that the final piece of a space-related service that they are developing is simply to connect the industry to Malta “so we in the UK are connecting the industry at Prestwick, Scotland, where we have a developed aerospace cluster, and connecting those aerospace players with their sister sites elsewhere in the UK.”

He adds: “Malta would be our European site to go to the east. So the two operate together. We are also looking at sites in the US, the Far East, and ultimately we see Malta fitting into a global network of such operations around the world. And this is an opportunity for Malta with its strategic geographic location, to be an integral part of that global network of horizontal space ports.”

The satellite industry, he explains, is very strong in the UK, Europe, the US, Japan and China, but it is also changing.

“The important feature of this industry is that technology miniaturisation is driving the size of satellites down and down, and as the size of satellites become smaller they also become less expensive, which means they become truly commercial. Before they were huge, they were national programmes, they took years to build, costing billions of dollars, but now they are small, cheap and commercial.

“And with the commercial nature of these satellites, so the commercial heartbeat of the process of launching them, repairing them, replacing them, becomes a rapid process, and a process that is not well suited to the big large rocket launcher infrastructure of the past.

“So along with this miniaturisation, commercialisation of satellite technology comes the commercialisation and miniaturisation of launch technology and the adoption of these simple air launch systems from traditional airfields.

All you have is an aircraft taking off as normal and leaving to conduct the launch operation. It is an environmentally friendly approach

“We are talking about the launch of a small satellite over the ocean. From a Maltese experience there is no noise pollution. All you have is an aircraft taking off as normal and leaving to fly 50 to 100km away and conduct the launch operation. It is a very benign, very environmentally friendly approach, no big rockets or sonic blasts, it’s a simple and safe way of proceeding.”

He explains that Orbital’s main clients are companies that are developing new clusters and constellations of satellites, a good example being OneWeb, a cluster of nearly 1,000 satellites that is to be launched, “and there are many other such constellations now in development”.

He goes on to say that these constellations have a reasonably short life in terms of the satellites, maybe one, two, three years, and so every two to three years the satellites are being replaced or replenished.

“So the launch system is there to replace and replenish these constellations that will be delivering satellite broadband relays to the Third World, or in Africa or around the world, they will be delivering imaging, and so on.

“These will be the clients and there are many of these corporate entities that are now basing their businesses on the satellite technology that goes into orbit. So satellite operators are really our customers, and governments and agencies as well.”

Mr McIntyre is keen to stress the historic ties between Malta and Britain, and he himself has a family connection to Malta. His grandfather, Group Captain David McIntyre, was the founder of Prestwick Airport in Scotland, which during and after World War II was connected to Malta through Scottish Airlines, his airline company, which passed through Malta on UK trooping contracts into North Africa.

“So there has been a strong family connection with Malta from that time, and of course, a very strong connection in aerospace and aviation from the early days of aviation. My grandfather was one of the pilots who flew on the first flights over Mount Everest in 1933, so he was a real pioneer in aviation.”

He believes this Malta project is an opportunity for a very strong bilateral link between the UK and Malta on spaceport and space infrastructure.

“We see the symbiotic relationship between the UK site and the Malta site as being very powerful. We also see the historic connection between the UK and Malta, both at a personal family level but also at a national level.”

He calls Luqa airport “a jewel of a facility” from its historic role in World War II all the way through to the present day. He also highlights Malta’s business and financial culture and its services industry, which make Malta very well equipped to establish this type of venture.

“If we had to choose somewhere in Europe to make a base it might as well be in such a deve­loped nation with the specific opportunity of being in a place we can operate as well, with its location, and that’s the unique piece.

“Only perhaps Portugal offers a similar opportunity with the Azores, but that is very distant, and is not really a place the space industry could consider.”