Shetland space centre seeks to be first UK spaceport

Ben Wray

Sutherland has been touted as an alternative site

SHETLAND SPACE CENTRE (SSC) is seeking to win support to become the pre-eminent site for space satellite launches, and therefore potentially the first spaceport in the UK.

The site in Unst on the Shetland Islands, called Saxa Vord, is currently an RAF site which received £10m in funding for a remote radar facility in January this year.

But SSC bosses believe the site is the prime location for a UK spaceport for commercial and state small satellite launches, a burgeoning industry sector.

SSC Director Scott Hammond said: “We want to make as many people as possible aware of the abundantly clear natural advantages that Unst has in terms of physics and geography.

“But is important to highlight the fact that it is not just us who are saying this – from government to academia to the space industry, there is a strong grasp of the situation.”

A report commissioned by the UK Space Agency found that the Saxa Vord site was the most efficient for delivering satellites to polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

SSC Founder and Director Frank Strang said: “Our natural advantages are obvious and are right there for everyone to see.

“Of course, Shetland has many other attributes as well, including formidable logistics and supply chain expertise developed over almost 50 years as host to the oil and gas industry, and we will be highlighting these strengths in the weeks and months ahead.”

In November 2017, the UK Space Agency received an additional £50m in funding from the UK Government to pursue UK spaceports, and Saxa Vord is one of many sites which has made a bid for that funding. But Strang has previously said that SSC would apply for a spaceport license even if it didn’t receive government funding due to the extent of commercial influence.

READ MORE: Five surprising reasons why Scotland really can aim for the stars with its space industry

Craig Berry, author of a paper on Scotland’s Space industry for the Common Weal think-tank, told CommonSpace that Unst should be one of multiple sites for expanding Scotland’s space infrastructure.

“Although Scotland isn’t well placed for a desirable equator launch position, The UK Space Agency sees value in our position for polar and sun-synchronous – gradually drifting east to west – orbits. These are popular for many new small satellite constellations planned for the next 10 years. Unst would be well placed within Scotland to deliver these launches. However, the infrastructure in Unst provides the capacity to only deliver a vertical launch site. Both Prestwick and Machrihanish are other potential options for a UK spaceport but with these, we are only capable of delivering horizontal launches,” Berry said.

He added: “This provides a significant competitive advantage to Scotland with the ability to deliver both forms of launch sites, both with excellent supply chains and logistical expertise. But we need to provide investment and stable economic planning. We would be one of the only European countries developing a spaceport, let alone the resource to provide a diversity of launch sites. That requires significant capital to ensure it is effective and sustainable.

“Scotland is already a leader in satellite production with Glasgow producing more satellites than any other European city. Unst is just another opportunity for Scotland to expand its stake in the global space industry, an industry with a turnover estimated to be around £210 billion in 2014/15.

“Shetland should be the home of vertical launches in the UK but it would be wrong for us to limit ourselves to this type of launch. We should consider the creation of a multiple spaceport infrastructure if we are serious about being a leader in this industry. To do this, we need to realise our potential and develop our strengths. Unst is one of our strengths.”

READ MORE: UK’s first spaceport could be in Scotland, says SNP MP

Another potential site in Sutherland in the Highlands has been advocated for by the trade union GMB, which could be an alternative employment opportunity for those currently working at the nearby Dounreay nuclear reactor sites that are currently being decommissioned.

“As Dounreay is decommissioned the existing levels of employment will inevitably decline so the focus should be on alternative employment opportunities that can sustain the communities of the far North,” the GMB’s Liz Gordon told Shetland News in April.

Picture courtesy of Markus Schroeder

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