Putting the UK back into space with plastic-fuelled rockets

Posted in: Internships & visits

Ciarán is a final-year PhD student at the CSCT who works with Professors Davide Mattia and Karen Edler. While his work mainly focuses on upscaling production of biodegradable microbeads, he is also investigating their use as vehicles for targeted application of micronutrients in agriculture.

In 2021, Ciarán had the opportunity to go on placement with Skyrora, working on the fascinating task of launching plastic-fuelled rockets into space. 

I don’t know about anyone else, but there is something pretty amazing about taking a metal tube, putting some energy-dense liquids in it, igniting those liquids in a (somewhat) controlled manner and watching that tube head off into the blue yonder. Well, for three months last summer I spent some time with Skyrora - a Scottish space launch start-up who have been working towards putting satellites into orbit. Skyrora have been developing a number of rockets, using each model to prove designs and concepts for the next bigger model. As I write this, Skyrora plans to launch the Skyrora XL in 2022. This is no bottle rocket. This is a 3-stage, 23 metre-long beast with a lift-off mass of 55,000 kg, that will put satellites into sun-synchronous or polar orbit. To make it even cooler, this will be launched from UK soil. To fuel this, the company has started a spin-off company called Ecosene, who have been producing a kerosene replacement using non-recyclable plastics. There’s also the very interesting 3D printer that occupies the volume of a small house, which produces rocket engines. All told, there’s enough new technology here to keep even the very easily distracted (ahem) occupied for a long time. Despite being home to a well-developed aviation industry, a well-skilled and educated workforce and some of the most prestigious universities in the world, the UK does not a domestic launch capability - this is changing very soon. Like most of Europe, we are reliant on launches from sites in Kazakhstan, North America, South America and China. With this in mind, it’s a rather exciting time to get the foot in the door of a UK-based launch start-up.

Enough exposition! I managed to get this internship through Skyrora, who were taking on students via the UK Space Agency, who run the Space Placements in Industry (SPiN) programme every year to give undergraduates and postgraduates the chance to gain experience in the fledging UK space-tech industry. Six of us were chosen - two PhD students (Cambridge and Bath), one Masters student (Queen Mary UoL), a recent graduate and two undergraduates. With my background working as a PhD researcher with the Centre for Sustainable & Circular Technologies, I’ve been armed well to work within a company with sustainability at the centre of everything it does - my integrated PhD programme has so far provided training on life cycle assessment, lab skills, managing projects, presenting data and science communication. Essential skills for furthering the sustainability agenda one would say.

There were a number of engineering opportunities. Luckily for me, Skyrora were looking for an intern to come aboard to help further develop their Quality Management System. Most of us in science are familiar with the concept of a QMS - you are looking to introduce traceability, accountability and assurance to your products or services, as well as reduce waste, increase serviceability and decrease turnover of equipment and material. Well, given the risks involved in aerospace and aviation, your standard ISO9001 doesn’t cut the mustard. Rather, I was involved in preparing the company for accreditation of AS9100D. Think ISO9001, but on steroids. This involved working on existing policies, procedures, forms and records for everything that impacts the final product - in this case, a rocket putting a few million pounds worth of satellites into orbit. This involved getting into the nitty gritty of every aspect of the business very quickly. From the start I was working on the existing quality management system and improving it by interviewing staff, inspecting processes, perusing engineering design protocol, developing ideas on how we can hire new staff, managing the supply chain, and preparing material for export.

The summer interns


It was a great opportunity to get to grips with project management and get an in-depth look at how companies control projects. I was lucky to have Skyrora put me through a Prince2 course, which is a fine qualification for learning how projects are planned, executed and managed. Given that project management skills are nothing without experience, this was a nice chance to put theory into practice. As the pressure was high and the turnaround times for everything were near-immediate, it felt like a 12 week examination in project control and management at times. The formal training in project management was huge addition to my skill set, and it is something I would recommend to anyone else - it has helped me gain confidence in planning my work here in Bath since my return. If you can get an employer to provide this during an internship, I would recommend it.

It wasn’t all policy and procedure - that was about a quarter of it. Turns out that with a medium sized SME, it is all hands on-deck. On top of the quality management system, there were a huge number of opportunities to get to grips with other parts of the business. As the company are using additive technologies to produce the rocket engines in-house, we needed to set-up a prototyping studio for proof of concept and general printing duties, which I was given responsibility for. This consisted of CNC machines, laser cutters, 3D scanners and 3D printers. I was given a responsibility for overseeing any chemical treatment methods that we used; some including a few tons of chemicals that you would ideally not deal with in such quantities. Planning an operation using very nasty reagents for non-chemists really requires one to come up with the safest possible solution, using clear and unambiguous instructions.

A great upshot of this internship was a job offer - I signed a contract for a permanent position as an Operations Engineer with Skyrora. I’m hugely grateful to Dr JJ Marlow, the Head of Engineering who gave me the chance to prove myself across a number of business and engineering projects and give me the chance to help put the UK back into space.

The UK team with Skylark L, the second largest launch vehicle designed by Skyrora


The UK team with Major Tim Peake, one of our strategic advisors and former ISS astronaut.

Posted in: Internships & visits


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