Cornwall’s spaceport plans ‘world-first’ ethical framework

Ethics-driven approach to CO2 emissions and payloads is designed to make Cornwall’s new spaceport the most sustainable in the world

“A wretched hive of scum and villainy” is how Obi-Wan Kenobi describes Mos Eisley spaceport in the original Star Wars movie.

Without resorting to quite such colourful language, Cornwall’s new spaceport at Newquay is keen to distance itself from the murkiness that shrouds spaceport operations in other parts of the world.  

“Space is a very dirty, polluting industry that’s enjoyed a level of secrecy over the years,” Melissa Thorpe, Spaceport Cornwall’s head of engagement, said during a virtual event examining the impact of Covid-19 on Cornwall’s Local Industrial Strategy. “Now, people are starting to ask more questions about emissions. We think Cornwall has an opportunity to do things differently.

Space is a very dirty, polluting industry that’s enjoyed a level of secrecy. Cornwall has an opportunity to do things differently.

Melissa Thorpe, head of engagement, spaceport cornwall

Space has a critical part to play in influencing environmental policy, she says, pointing to satellite images from Copernicus SENTINEL-5 that showed pollution levels abating during the coronavirus lockdown. Those images are prompting cities like Venice to implement new, more sustainable tourism policies, showing the power of satellite imagery to capture policymakers’ imagination.

Nitrogen dioxide levels over Italy, captured by Copernicus SENTINEL-5 during the coronavirus lockdown.
Nitrogen dioxide levels over Italy, captured by Copernicus SENTINEL-5. Source: European Space Agency

But while images from SENTINEL-5 may be driving greener policies, the environmental impact of its launch is difficult to assess. Built in the UK under the European Space Agency’s Copernicus programme, the satellite was transported to Russia and launched from a spaceport that makes little information public.

“I’ve done as much research as I possibly can to find out the emissions of that launch, and I can’t find much about it,” says Thorpe.

The argument is that the horizontal launch site at Newquay will remove the need for UK-built small satellites, which account for almost one-fifth of all small satellites currently in operation, to be taken abroad for launch. That in turn will reduce the carbon footprint of the UK satellite industry.

New thinking on emissions from horizontal satellite launch

Spaceport Cornwall, a public-private initiative involving Cornwall Council, Virgin Orbit, Goonhilly Earth Station and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, has come in for strong criticism from environmental campaigners, particularly as the Council’s £12m investment in the spaceport came on the heels of its declaration of a climate emergency.

The criticism has forced a rethink, with the Spaceport re-assessing the carbon emissions from its first horizontal launch slated for 2021, and looking for ways to reduce them further. “We’re coming up with a full sustainability action plan,” says Thorpe. “We’re looking at things like what fuels we can use differently, what can we do with the site infrastructure, and how we work as a team.”

With the new plan will come an ethical framework, which Thorpe believes will be the first of its kind in the world for a spaceport. It will mandate full transparency around carbon emissions, as well as guiding decisions about which payloads to accept for launch and which to turn away.

“We’re not perfect, there will be emissions from what we’re doing,” she says. “But we’re not going to be a spaceport in Russia or Kazakhstan that isn’t releasing what they’re up to. We’re going to be completely transparent.”