Corks pop for a new space mission

Paul Burgess from Burgess & Hall wines in London, where the team have collected from, and Danielle Hanbrook from Recyrcle, who is in charge of sourcing the cork material  (Handout)
Paul Burgess from Burgess & Hall wines in London, where the team have collected from, and Danielle Hanbrook from Recyrcle, who is in charge of sourcing the cork material (Handout)

A group of London space scientists have won Government funding for a project which turns popped champagne corks into vital heat-resistant material used for rocket launches.

Space Prime was awarded £17,000 by the UK Space Agency to develop the technology to produce cork sheets which act as a sacrificial heat shield against a rocket’s thrusters.

Cork has been used in rocket launches going right back to the Apollo space programme in the Sixties. More recently it has been deployed in Elon Musk’s Space X Falcon 9 rocket programme.

The UKSA handed £2.7 million to 14 early-stage technology projects across England, Scotland and Wales just before Christmas — part of Britain’s ambitious push to expand its domestic satellite launch capabilities.

While the UK is internationally known for its satellite manufacturing industry with nearly 50,000 people employed in the country’s space sector it has so far had to rely on foreign spaceports to put Britain’s satellites into orbit.

Last week’s failed Virgin LauncherOne mission from Newquay was the first time a British satellite launch had been attempted from British soil.

Space Prime’s cork sheets are designed for vertical rocket launches — not the horizontal rocket systems like the one carried by Virgin’s repurposed Boeing 747 in Monday’s launch, which failed to reach the required orbit.

But the scientists behind the start-up, based in a new facility next to City Hall, say it could play a vital role in the UK’s ambitious industrial space strategy. “At the moment most of the cork sheets come from Spain and Portugal,” said Matt Blyton, Space Prime’s chief executive.

“It’s such a unique engineering material. It is abundantly available as scrap in the UK, it works well as a sacrificial heat shield and can operate at over 1,000C.”

The money from the UKSA will be used to help pay for new presses which process the corks, collected from pubs in the capital.