The Scottish rocket start-up Skyrora wants to retrieve the derelict remains of the iconic satellite Prospero, the only British craft ever launched into space on a domestic rocket, and return it to Earth for a museum display.
Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Skyrora is currently developing a light kerosene-fueled rocket capable of launching small satellites to low Earth orbit. In 2018, the company spearheaded an initiative that retrieved the remnants of the first stage of the British-built Black Arrow rocket, which launched Prospero in 1971, from an Australian desert and returned it to the United Kingdom.
The launch of Prospero has a special, although bittersweet, place in British history. The Black Arrow rocket program, a continuation of the U.K.’s missile defense program, shutdown after the successful launch due to cost reasons, leaving Prospero the first — and so far only — British satellite to launch on a British-built rocket.
A startup eyes British space history
Skyrora, which sees itself as an heir of Black Arrow’s legacy, plans to start offering commercial launches into low Earth orbit from British soil within the next two years using the company’s XL rocket.
The firm announced the ambition to retrieve the defunct Prospero at the recent Space Comm Expo exhibition in Farnborough, U.K., with the help of British astronaut Tim Peake, who joined Skyrora’s advisory board last year.
The company admits that retrieving the 50-year-old Prospero satellite, which still orbits at the altitude of about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers), will present significant technical challenges. Skyrora has therefore called on other U.K. companies, government agencies and academic institutions to put forward ideas on how to accomplish the task.
Alan Thompson, head of government affairs at Skyrora, told Space.com in an interview that the company has already been in touch with several other U.K.-based space firms and expects to introduce a more detailed plan for the mission by October 28, the 50th anniversary of Prospero’s launch.
Japan-headquartered Astroscale, which has offices in the U.K., is one of the potential collaborators, according to Thomson. The company is currently preparing to conduct a space junk removal demonstration with their ELSA-d mission, which launched in March of this year.
Searching for Prospero
The 146-lbs. (66-kilogram) Prospero, which studied the effects of the space environment on telecommunication satellites, sent its last signal to the ground in 2004. Since then, its orbit has been slowly decaying as the satellite joined the growing cloud of orbital debris.
Thompson said the project’s aim is to ultimately draw attention to the space junk problem, which has intensified in recent years, and propose more sustainable ways of future space operations.
Multiple companies and space agencies are developing technology to remove defunct satellites from low Earth orbit. These proposals plan to pull the satellites down into Earth’s atmosphere for a burn-up. The idea of bringing an intact satellite all the way to the ground, however, is rather new.
Thomson said the technology developed to bring Prospero home would not be designed for single use only. Recently, scientists started raising concerns about the possible negative effects of a large amount of satellites burning up in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, saying that the particles produced during the burning of the metal satellite parts could affect the planet’s climate in the future. That, Thomson said, might mean that an alternative disposal solution might soon be needed anyway.
Skyrora, according to Thomson, sees themselves as champions of space sustainability. Although the company’s XL rocket runs on kerosene, the fuel it uses is actually made of non-recyclable plastic waste. Skyrora said that in addition to its renewable nature, the fuel produces 45% less greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuel-based aviation fuel kerosene.
Earlier this year, the company received $3.5 million (€3 million) from the European Space Agency (ESA) toward the development of its technology.
Skyrora has also recently completed trials of the innovative third stage of the XL rocket, the Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), or a space tug. The OTV, which can reignite its engines more than 15 times once in orbit, could play a role in bringing the Prospero satellite to Earth, Skyrora said in a statement.