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The U.K. Race for Spaceports

Possessing an exemplary track record of space-related science, technologies, academia and engineering, the United Kingdom has been somewhat of an anomaly in the global space industry. Despite the decades of expertise, the U.K. has never launched a vertical rocket into orbit.

Intending to capture a sizeable 10% of the global space market, the Scotland-based spaceports in Sutherland and Shetland are at the centre of the U.K.’s star-gazing ambitions.

Against the backdrop of Covid and a few years of political woes, the U.K. revealed that it was to build but two competing spaceports on British soil. They are doing so with the aims of spurring enterprise, science, and the economy in a bid to give the U.K. a competitive edge in the expanding business of commercial spaceflight, as well as establishing their own spaceflight programs.

Commenting on the “Size and Health of the U.K. Space Industry 2020” report, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

“As we look to fulfil our bold ambitions for space, including the first satellite launches from U.K. soil next year, I look forward to seeing the sector growing further with more young people pursuing exciting careers in space, all while helping to cement the U.K.’s status as a global space superpower.”

Spaceports in the U.K.?

It may come as somewhat of a surprise that the U.K. has rather unique launch opportunities, geographically speaking. However, it is clear that the island nation is also one of the most prominent exporters of space technologies and engineering.

To put things into perspective, U.K. satellite exports of spacecraft and satellites netted the country $289.92 million in 2018; and as per the most recent report on the U.K. space industry, over £360 billion of “wider U.K. economic activity is now supported by satellites, up from £300 billion.”

More specifically, the Scotland launch sites will serve the ever-expanding small satellite (smallsat) market, providing launch services for both domestic and international clients. The global smallsat industry was worth an estimated $3.07 billion in 2019, and is projected to reach around $10 billion by 2027 according to a report published in May 2021.

With the U.K. having such a significant output of satellite and launch technologies, especially from Scotland, it is very convenient that the spaceports are situated within the same borders. This fact alone gives the U.K. an extremely competitive edge. And the regulation for the sphere recently laid in Parliament makes rocket launches closer.

So, let’s take a quick look at the current status of the two competing spaceports.

Sutherland Spaceport

The Sutherland spaceport is due to begin construction at some point in the near future, with a view to conduct an orbital launch as early as 2022. Actually, the work is already started, with detailed ground investigations started at Melness Crofters Estate to inform the detailed design of the complex.

Located on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, Sutherland, Scotland, the vertical launch site will be launching payloads of up to 500kg with Danish-rooted firm Orbex set to be the first planned departure.

Initially, Orbex and U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin were partnered together on the Sutherland spaceport, however the U.S. firm decided to move their U.K. Pathfinder Launch programme to the Shetland spaceport. The initial plans were for the spaceport to have two vertical launch pads, but due to ecological limitations the maximum number of yearly launches has dropped from 30 to 12.

At the time, the Scottish Government Minister for Trade explained the move, describing it as a means to “enhance vertical launch capability and enable us to target a wider market base through a complementary offer across multiple spaceports.” Basically, follow the money.

The move from Lockheed Martin might look troubling for Sutherland spaceport. The remaining partner, Orbex, required a bailout loan even though they reported to have secured millions from investors.

The project may not even be built in Sutherland and may need to relocate, as despite receiving approval to build a £17.9 million facility in 2020, Scotland’s richest man, Danish billionaire Holch Povlsen, has been granted the right to challenge the planning approval, citing environmental concerns.

He and his wife own a company called Wildland, which has a 200-year roadmap to rewild the Highlands. However, eyebrows have been raised with regards to his £1.4 million investment in the Shetland Space Centre as he claims that the far spaceport has more chances for success. A judicial review around Sutherland Space Hub is set to take place in June 2021.

Shetland Space Centre

The Shetland spaceport is due to begin construction also at some point this year with plans to be operational and launching by 2022. Located in Lamba Ness, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland, the vertical launch site will be capable of launching 1000kg payloads with intentions of having 3 launch pads. Lockheed Martin and ABL Space Systems are set to be the first batch of planned departures.

Projected to create 140 jobs and some £5 million for the island’s economy, Shetland spaceport is still awaiting official approval as the project’s planning was recently rejected. The planned site for the spaceport is proposed within the grounds of a historical World War II radar facility, which would require demolition. The activists simply ask to move the construction site off the historical spot.

Historic Environment Scotland wrote:

“There is therefore no compelling case for the nationally important historic environment considerations to be set aside for the development,” Adding, “The application has not demonstrated that any benefits that would arise from the application could not be achieved elsewhere, outwith the scheduled area.” The Shetland Space Centre is contesting this rejection.

The spaceport is expected to be capable of launching up to 30 times a year with California-based ABL Space Systems due to conduct the first launch for Lockheed Martin as part of the U.K. Pathfinder programme. At the time of departure from Sutherland, a Lockheed Martin U.K. spokesperson described conflicting technical requirements as the reasons for the separation, highlighting that separate launch sites would be beneficial for both parties.

Deputy chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency, Ian Annett, noted:

“We want the U.K. to be the first in Europe to launch small satellites into orbit, attracting innovative businesses from all over the world,” Adding: “Lockheed Martin’s selection of ABL Space Systems for their U.K. Pathfinder launch brings us one step closer to realizing this ambition, putting the U.K. firmly on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination.”

Although the people of Unst have come to support the project, it remains yet to be seen if the project will go ahead, or be moved elsewhere.

The Same Goal

Seemingly, both proposed spaceports are having trouble getting off the ground, which is no surprise considering the past year or so of pandemic-related issues that have plagued almost every industry around the world. But also, it seems as though that both the spaceports and firms involved are struggling to organise themselves.

Regardless, the U.K. is due to have vertical launching spaceports in 2022, marking the beginnings of a historical era for the nation. With Scotland already being home to some of the most innovative satellite manufacturers in the world, the geographical advantage of having two spaceports nearby will give them and their clients an amazing opportunity to capitalise on.

It is projected the commercial vertical and horizontal launch demand could be worth some £4 billion to the U.K. economy over the next decade, which would be added to the blossoming industry the country already possesses.

To achieve this goal, spaceports are vital, considering France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden and Norway are competing for market share. It looks like the UK has to put significant effort to actually become the first in Europe to host a spaceport.

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