Plans to launch small satellites from the Scottish Highlands took a step closer to fruition Wednesday after the Highland Council North Planning Applications Committee granted its final approval for the construction of a “Space Hub” in the northern county of Sutherland.
The Space Hub Sutherland project, put forward by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), consists of control and processing facilities, a single launch complex, and 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) of road to connect them. Located on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, the launch site is 210 kilometers (130 miles) northwest of Aberdeen and 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of Glasgow.
The £17.3-million ($22.72 million USD) project is being undertaken by HIE in conjunction with the UK Space Agency and the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency – the latter to help offset job losses from the closure of the nearby Dounreay power station. Initial launches will be conducted by British company Orbex Space, although U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has also expressed an interest in using the site.
Sutherland’s location in the far north of Scotland makes it ideal for small rockets launching on northerly trajectories – targeting polar and sun-synchronous orbits. HIE expects this to be a significant market, with the spaceport seeing up to 12 launches per year.
Wednesday’s decision affirms a previous announcement by the Highland Council at the end of June, which had given a provisional go-ahead for construction, subject to the consent of the Scottish Government. On 4 August, the Scottish Parliament confirmed they would not interfere with authorization, paving the way for final planning approval.
The Space Hub project has not been uncontroversial, with nature and environmental groups including Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Wild Land Group, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stating their opposition to its construction.
Prior to approval, a total of 457 objections to the proposal had been lodged with the Highland Council, as well as 118 letters of support. In coming to its decision, the Highland Council weighed the concerns against the benefits to the local area – in terms of jobs, tourism and the economy. HIE expects the project will generate 250 well-paid jobs in the region, including 44 at the spaceport itself.
Care has also been taken to respect the environment in the design and planned construction of the facility, which will be built on peatland. Developers will aim to minimize the amount of peat excavated to make way for the spaceport and its access roads, with any peat that is removed being re-used – either on site or to repair nearby areas that have been previously damaged.
Although HIE has leased a 300-hectare (3 square kilometers, 1.16 square mile) site on which to build the spaceport, only a fraction of this will be developed. The Space Hub will be divided into three areas – the Launch Operations Control Centre (LOCC), the Launch Site Integration Facility (LSIF) and the launch pad itself.
The LOCC will be built close to the existing A838 main road. The wedge-shaped building has been designed with a peat-covered roof sloping towards the road, which will help the building blend into its surroundings. On the opposite face, a glass wall will give controllers and visitors a view of the launch pad, located 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) to the north. As well as the launch control room, the building includes office and meeting spaces and a viewing area.
Just to the south of the launch pad, the LSIF houses horizontal integration and processing facilities for the rockets and their payloads, with an antenna farm to track the rocket after launch. The launch pad will include a lightning mast, lighting towers and fuel stores.
With planning permission now secured, construction is on course to begin before the end of the year, and HIE is hopeful that the site could be operational and supporting its first launch as early as 2022.
While planning permission gives the Highlands and Islands Enterprise clearance to begin construction work, operation of the site will also be contingent on a legal and regulatory framework for satellite launches from the United Kingdom being put in place.
This is not expected to be a significant hurdle, as expansion of the UK’s space industry is a key objective of the British Government, and legislation is expected to be laid before the Houses of Parliament in due course.
HIE has partnered with British-based startup Orbex Space, who plan to fly their Orbex Prime rocket from Sutherland. Based in Moray, Orbex was founded in 2015 and has attracted investment from the UK and European Space Agencies.
Named as one of the Sunday Times’ 10 disruptor companies to watch at the end of 2019, Orbex has already secured a healthy backlog of launches, including missions for Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), Astrocast SA and a twenty-launch deal with Elecnor Deimos.
The two-stage Orbex Prime rocket will measure 17 meters (56 feet) in length and 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) in diameter. It is designed to carry a payload of up to 180 kilograms (400 lb) into low Earth orbit. Orbex is marketing the rocket for miniaturized satellite missions as well as deployment of nanosatellites built to the CubeSat and PocketQube standards.
The company also promotes the rocket’s ability to fly short-duration payloads remaining attached to the upper stage.
The Prime rocket burns biopropane fuel and liquid oxygen – a propellant combination Orbex claim will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90% compared to rockets burning kerosene.
The rocket has been designed to take advantage of modern technologies, including lightweight composite materials and 3D printing. Most of the engine assembly will be 3D printed, allowing a single structure to be created without any welds or joins.
Orbex further unveiled the second stage of the rocket earlier this year, but little is known about the first stage aside from the fact that it is expected to be reusable, incorporating systems to facilitate its recovery for use across multiple missions.
Sutherland aims to become the first spaceport in the United Kingdom for vertically-launched orbital rockets; in parallel, the UK Space Agency is backing a project to build facilities for air-launched rockets at Newquay Airport in Cornwall – the most southwestern county of England.
Virgin Orbit has confirmed plans to fly their LauncherOne rocket – which is deployed from a Boeing 747 – from Newquay no earlier than the end of 2021.
The UK also has a suborbital launch site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides – off the west coast of Scotland – that was originally used for research missions flown by Skua and Petrel sounding rockets between 1962 and 1982. In 2015, a U.S. Terrier-Orion launched from South Uist to became the first rocket fired from the UK to reach space in over 30 years.
Two further launches with Terrier-Oriole rockets took place in 2017, with all three launches conducted to test the AEGIS anti-missile defense systems aboard U.S. Navy ships in the Atlantic Ocean.
Historically, the UK was the sixth country to develop its own orbital launch capability with its Black Arrow rocket placing the Prospero satellite into orbit on 28 October 1971 – after which the project was abandoned. The Prospero launch, along with a preceding failure and two suborbital test flights, took place from the Woomera Rocket Range in Australia.
The Europa rocket, built in partnership with France, Germany and Italy and incorporating a British-built Blue Streak first stage, also flew from Woomera before moving to Kourou, French Guiana, for its final flight.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Orbex is one of a number of British companies vying to restore the country’s orbital launch capability. A rival startup, Skyrora, also aims to fly its rocket – Skyrora-XL – to orbit from a launch site in Great Britain by the end of 2023.
However, with construction now approved for the site at Sutherland, Orbex is now in pole position to take up Black Arrow’s mantle.