Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has commissioned a study to determine whether an area of north Sutherland might in future make a suitable location to launch satellites into Earth orbit.
A feasibility study is under way to examine the pros and cons of establishing a vertical launch facility for commercial satellites at The Moine, part of the Melness Crofting Estate near Tongue.
The development agency has appointed consultants Upper Quartile to carry out the study. Their findings will help establish whether The Moine meets a range of technical criteria which potential satellite launch operators would require.
The study will examine the likely numbers of jobs and other economic benefits a project of this kind could create, as well as assessing its potential environmental impact, the scale of investment which would be required, and the public consultation and statutory planning processes which would need to be undertaken.
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of Sutherland possibly becoming a launch centre is starting to generate local interest. Officials from HIE’s Caithness and Sutherland area team have already held informal discussions with local crofters and other residents.
The feasibility study is expected to be ready in the summer. However, even if it does conclude that The Moine is a suitable location, the prospect of the first launch would still lie far into the future – if it is to happen at all.
Several other crucial tests would have to be met before the possibility could become a reality, not least the need for extensive public consultation and planning consent, which could take years to achieve.
Major private sector-led investment would also be essential, as well as international marketing to attract one or more operators to base themselves at the facility.
Roy Kirk, Caithness and Sutherland Area Manager for HIE, said: “The satellite launch market is growing and we believe there will be an opportunity in the coming years for one location in Europe to establish a vertical launch centre.
“The Moine appears to meet many, if not all, of the requirement to become that location and we’ve commissioned this study to gather and weigh up the evidence.
“It’s important to bear in mind that HIE is an agency with responsibility for both community and economic development, and we have a strong track record of supporting groups and projects which deliver environmental benefits as well as economic growth.
“While HIE recognises that a satellite launch site could provide an economic boon for Sutherland, we also care deeply that any potential environmental impacts are fully understood and evaluated as well.”