The United Kingdom can boast an enviable record of excellence with its contributions to science, engineering, and technology, especially in the field of aeronautics. Therefore, it’s surprising that Great Britain hasn’t yet achieved a vertical rocket launch from the country’s soil, despite the abundance of scientific expertise in its space industry.
Now, the United Kingdom is targeting 10% of the worldwide space industry by 2030, and its success in the endeavor is likely to hinge on the progress of two new UK spaceports.
Despite the difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing fallout from Brexit, the UK is still aiming to build new spaceports on British soil very shortly. The government and space industry hope to boost British enterprise, provide a platform for the nation’s scientific talent, and secure considerable economic benefits.
UK science minister Amanda Solloway stated that the new UK spaceports would “cement the UK’s status as a global space superpower.” The UK already makes sizeable contributions to the global space industry with its technology exports. The annual UK satellite export market is valued at over $300 million, while more than £360 billion of broader UK economic activity is supported by satellite services.
Indeed, small satellite (smallsat) technology promises the most significant short-term growth for the space industry’s future. Many of Britain’s most innovative smallsat companies are located in Scotland, which, combined with the local geography, makes the UK’s northernmost part an ideal base of operations for developing the country’s space industry.
It’s no surprise, then, that Scotland has been chosen as the location for two different spaceports with two very different profiles. While plans for other UK spaceports in Wales and Cornwall are also in progress, if Britain launches Europe’s first vertical rocket, it will likely originate from one Scottish spaceport. Now, it continues to be discussed which will strike first: Space Hub Sutherland or the Shetland Space Centre.
With a proposed site amidst the beautiful Scottish Highlands on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, the construction of Space Hub Sutherland is scheduled to begin soon, with an eye on launching rockets before the end of 2022. The spaceport will launch rockets carrying payloads of up to 500 kg, the first of which will be a rocket made by Orbex. Although based in Scotland, Orbex’s founders hail from Denmark and Germany, with most of Orbex’s employees working in Denmark rather than in the UK.
This is not the only setback that Orbex and Sutherland Space Hub have had to weather. This is not the only setback that Orbex and Sutherland Space Hub have had to survive. Previously, the American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin had come aboard as a partner at Sutherland Space Hub. However, it seems the US company thought better of the decision, as they have now turned their efforts to the Shetland Space Centre instead.
The original design for the spaceport included two vertical launchpads to enable up to 30 launches every year. However, due to ecological restrictions, the spaceport has been limited to a single launch pad and a maximum of 12 launches every year. It is also unclear why Orbex would have sought a bailout loan despite having secured millions in investment for the project.
Other objections to the Sutherland spaceport have come from Danish billionaire and the richest man in Scotland, Holch Povlsen. The emigrant entrepreneur has cited environmental concerns that conflict with the work done by his Wildland firm, which aims to rewild the Scottish Highlands. However, it’s also worth noting that Povlsen has a £1.4 million stake in the competing Shetland Space Centre, which he argues has more potential for success.
Shetland Space Centre is also looking to be up and running with its first rocket launch by the end of 2022, from a site in Lamba Ness on Unst, one of the Shetland Islands. The plans boast three launchpads capable of launching payloads of up to 1,000 kg for up to 30 launches every year. Lockheed Martin is partnering with space technology firm ABL Space Systems for a series of maiden launches from the spaceport.
Although the project promises to contribute £5 million to the local economy, planning approval has yet to be granted. The preferred site will require the demolition of a Second World War radar facility, which Historic Environment Scotland has argued is too high a price to pay. Suggested suitable alternatives could easily be found elsewhere.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused mass disruption to almost every industry on Earth, and the commercial space sector is no different. That said, the global space industry continued to grow in 2020, which is perhaps a testament to the sector’s future-proof potential. Suppose the UK is serious about leveraging its space industry to acquire a share of this market.
In that case, UK spaceports will have to be constructed before long, especially if Great Britain wants to realize its ambitions of becoming the first European nation to play host to a vertical rocket launch. Meanwhile, on the continent, countries such as Germany, Sweden, France, Norway, and Portugal, are all working towards making their space industries sufficiently competitive to increase their global market shares.
The UK spaceports planned for Scotland both face their own set of challenges. Neither the Shetland Space Centre nor Sutherland Space Hub will find themselves wanting for customers if one or both of them can demonstrate the capacity for successful vertical rocket launches. However, the presence of two different spaceports in Scotland can only help to improve Britain’s overall ability for commercial space launches that are likely to make the country an attractive proposition for future investment.
The global satellite market proliferates as more and more industries rely on satellite technology to stay competitive. If these UK spaceports can establish themselves as Europe’s premier launch facilities, both the spaceport developers and the broader British economy are sure to reap the benefits.
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