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Pioneering firm rejuvenates rocket testing site

Tuesday, May 10th, 2022 Posted in News

Westcott’s position as launchpad for the development of rocket technology has been further strengthened with the reopening of another former testing site.

Propulsion company Protolaunch has collaborated with Westcott site team on the upgrade of E Site, bringing the old testing facilities back to life for its development of smaller rocket engines for a new generation spacecraft.

As a result, it is working with partners including the European Space Agency (ESA) and Satellite Applications Catapult and has just been awarded a £194,000 project with the UK Space Agency as part of a recently announced £2m funding package for space exploration.

This will support the development of Protolaunch’s deeply throttleable rocket engine technology which is ideally suited to kick stages, in-orbit propulsion and landers. The technology focuses on removing complex turbopumps without sacrificing performance. Testing will take place at the E Site this month.

Chief Executive and founding partner Matt Escott said:

“We wanted to invest in our own dedicated test stand at Westcott. We now have control of our destiny and can work faster and test bigger and more complex technology.”

Protolaunch started as a Cambridge University spin out in 2019 and joined the Westcott Business Incubation Centre before moving to the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre at Harwell, Oxfordshire. It returned to Westcott last August, basing itself at the Innovation Centre and leasing E Site.

Built sometime after 1956, E Site was designed to test the Bristol Siddeley Stentor engine that powered the Blue Steel stand-off missile designed for the UK’s V bomber force.

Later in its life, E Site was used to test a fully retractable rocket-assisted take-off pack for the Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer S.Mk.50 strike aircraft ordered by the South African government.

Matt added:

“E Site has a long history. We have completely kitted out the bunker with our control systems with the ability to test green propellant rocket engines up to 15 kilonewtons (kN) in thrust.”

The Protolaunch team also has expertise in additive manufacturing, control systems and electronics and is rapidly bringing new propulsion products to market, particularly for launching small satellites, a market expected to be worth $115bn by 2030.

Matt said:

“We’ve worked with many of the Westcott rocket community such as Airborne Engineering for years, so we knew what a fantastic site Westcott was and about the expertise of the companies working there. There’s nowhere else in the country where you can do this sort of stuff.

“We’ve been able to do projects with companies such as Nammo so it’s fantastic that we can work on site and win bids together. Westcott is the ideal place for testing rocket engines and we’re winning contracts from the UK Space Agency because we’ve got this capability. We will be hosting an official opening of our new facility at E Site at the Westcott Space Expo as part of the Space Cluster tour of the site on 28th July.”

Nigel MacKenzie, Development Manager at Westcott said:

“It is fantastic to see the rocket testing facilities continue to come back to life on the site, transforming it into a European centre of excellence for this technology.

“Westcott is a place where sustainability is a commitment for us managing the Park and for lots of the businesses based here. Many of the rocketry companies at Westcott specialise in green rocket propellants and technologies.

“Protolaunch joins a thriving nucleus of space companies and there is some really exciting work going on in rocketry here. Our pride in Westcott’s heritage has driven the desire to embrace the future.”

Mike Curtis-Rouse, Head of Access to Space at Satellite Applications Catapult said:

“The world is entering a new era in commercial space with new opportunities ranging from manufacturing in space, to ice mining on the Moon, and even harnessing solar power from space. Protolaunch is in the vanguard, bringing the best of British innovation in materials, manufacturing, and propulsion technologies to the market. The use of E Site, a legacy test stand and its conversion into a state-of-the-art high energy test facility, is going to be pivotal in the development of the next generation of rocket engines in the UK, and we welcome Protolaunch joining the Westcott Space Cluster.”

Westcott is recognised as an integral part of the UK space sector growth strategy with a nucleus of well-established companies supporting rocket and satellite enabled research and development projects.