Countdown is underway for lift-off of regional space sector

Published 27/06/2023 by David Oxley 4 min read

Breaking ground at Sutherland Spaceport

A remote, sparsely populated peninsula on the north west coast of Scotland is set to make history.

Within the next couple of years, Sutherland Spaceport on the A’ Mhoine peninsula is expected to host the first in a series of regular commercial spaceflights from the UK mainland.

As the first spade dug into the ground at Melness Crofters Estate beneath a slate-grey sky on 4 May, it marked not only the start of a major construction project, but also the culmination of years of hard work by a dedicated group of partners.

I was privileged to be there to witness the event, accompanied by colleagues from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who have guided the project since inception around eight years ago.

Alongside us were representatives of community landowner Melness Crofters Estate; orbital launch services company Orbex, who will build and operate the spaceport; the UK Space Agency, Scottish Government officials and Richard Lochhead MSP, Minister for Small Business, Innovation, Tourism and Trade.

Space presents one of the most exciting economic opportunities for the Highlands and Islands at present.

Farther north, on Unst in Shetland, work is already well underway to create SaxaVord Spaceport. Other launch sites are planned at Machrihanish in Argyll and on North Uist.

Over in Moray, Orbex has established a test site and a thriving and growing manufacturing centre in Forres, where the rockets that will carry satellites into low-Earth orbit from Sutherland will be built.  

The availability of a spaceport at a reasonable distance has been a key factor in Orbex’s decision to set up and expand its manufacturing operations. That’s a great example of how Sutherland Spaceport will underpin wider economic benefits.

Skilled jobs at the spaceport itself will provide opportunities for the local community, with the potential to attract more families into the area and establish new career paths for young people. But a greater impact will be stimulating the growth of a regional space sector, including manufacturing, supply chain companies, research, data analysis and service industries.

The spaceport project was approved in principle by the Board of HIE in June 2018 and is expected to support around 250 new employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands over the coming years, including 40 jobs in Sutherland and Caithness.

Economic impact assessments commissioned by HIE conclude that the presence of the spaceport has the potential to generate almost £1 billion in gross value added (GVA) for the Highlands and Islands economy over the next 30 years.

These are the factors that have attracted public investment totalling £14.6m to support development of the launch site.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is contributing £3m as part of its commitment to decommission the former Dounreay power station sustainably, providing economic opportunities for the local community, while the UK Space Agency has pledged £2.55m.

HIE and the Scottish Government are investing a total of £9.1m. This includes a £6.5m grant from HIE to Orbex to support spaceport development.

Sutherland Spaceport, like all those named above, benefits from a set of natural and demographic advantages that make it an ideal location. Its northern latitude is ideal for orbital access. Relative remoteness and low population density are important safety features. And proximity to the coast enables rocket stages to be disengaged into water where, in the case of the innovative Orbex Prime vehicle, they can be recovered and recycled.

Environmental quality is a vital aspect of the project. HIE commissioned extensive studies to assess and minimise impact on the natural landscape and wildlife during both construction and operations. Protection measures include a detailed peat restoration plan and ensuring that launches are timed to avoid disturbing breeding birds.

Up to 12 launches a year are planned from the 10-acre launch site, each carrying dozens of small, commercial satellites that will be used for Earth observation, including monitoring weather, crop development and climate change.

Reflecting on all of this on an overcast May morning, it was impossible not to feel excited at the realisation that history was being made before my eyes.

More than that, though, was the knowledge that this ceremony marked a significant point in the countdown that is now underway towards the launch, not just of one rocket, but an entire space sector for our region.

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