Artist impression of the Sutherland spaceportCredit: Perfect Circle
Artist impression of the Sutherland spaceport

UK one step closer to first Spaceport

UK Space Agency grants bring the UK one step closer to its first vertical launch spaceport.


Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has been awarded £2.5 million in funding to develop a vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland. Funding has also been awarded to Lockheed Martin to establish operations and to Orbex to fund the development and building of an innovative new rocket to be launched from Sutherland. The hopes are that the UK’s first spaceport will be up and running by the early 2020’s.

This is the first spaceport in the UK to be awarded grant money to support the UK’s expanding space industry. The grant money is aimed to boost sub-orbital flight, satellite launch and spaceplane ambitions. A £2 million fund is also being made available to boost horizontal spaceport development, with launch sites being planned in Cornwall, Glasgow Prestwick and Snowdonia.

Why Sutherland?

Traditionally spaceports, such as Cape Canaveral, are found near the equator as the spin of the Earth at these latitudes give rockets an extra boost into high orbits.

So why has Sutherland been chosen?

The location of Sutherland allows for smaller satellites to be placed in polar and sun-synchronous orbits. The former flys over the poles, allowing for better detail to be seen of things not visible from equator orbits and the latter orbiting over one spot on the Earth’s surface with the sun in the same place in the sky each day allowing accurate comparison of images to detect erosion, subsistence or crop changes.

This, combined with its natural exclusion zone of 4km, makes Sutherland an ideal location for the launch of small and medium sized satellites.

Who is involved?

HIE will be working closely with Lockheed Martin, a global American aerospace company, who will receive a £23.5 million UK Space Agency grant to establish vertical launch operations and develop innovative technologies in Reading. Lockheed Martin also hopes to bring the Electron Rocket that currently launches in New Zealand to Scotland.

British based company Orbex has also received £5.5m in grant money to build an ‘innovative new rocket’ to launch from Sutherland. Their small launch vehicle, Prime, would be able to deliver small satellites into Earth’s orbit using single renewable fuel, bio-propane, which cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to hydrocarbon fuels traditionally used in rocket launches.

What happens now?

HIE aims to have the Sutherland spaceport up and running by the early 2020’s however many details still need to be worked out, such as liability rules and safety requirements. Although Sutherland is the first spaceport to be awarded funding from the UK Space Agency, it is unlikely to be the last with many other locations in the UK developing plans for future spaceports. Spaceport Cornwall recently partnered with Virgin Orbit aiming to provide horizontal launch services from Newquay Airport by 2021, they have predicted that as many as 9,000 high tech space industry jobs will be created from this partnership. Although Sutherland is yet to receive a spaceport licence, needed for launches to take place, this is a very exciting investment in the future of the UK space sector. Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, remarked that:

‘The space sector is an important player in the UK’s economy and our recent Space Industry Act has unlocked the potential for hundreds of new jobs and billions of revenue for British business across the country.’

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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