Lift off for UK spaceports

Nick Myall
Monday 16 Jul 2018

A number of spaceport sites have been lined up for development in the UK

The A'Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland in northern Scotland has been chosen as the most suitable place to locate the UK’s first spaceport. The UK Space Agency is giving Highlands and Islands Enterprise £2.5m towards the development of the facility from which rockets will be launched vertically to put satellites in orbit.

According to the BBC, HIE will work closely with a consortium that includes the American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. The goal would be to have launches as early as possible in the 2020s.

The Scotland money is part of a package of grants to foster UK launch capability that was announced by UK Business Secretary Greg Clark at the Farnborough International Air Show.

He told the event: "We are one of the best countries in the world for the research, development, manufacturing and application of satellites - big and small. And when we see the expansion that is taking place, and the requirement that these satellites need to be launched into orbit - there is an obvious opportunity here for the UK and it must be grasped."

Mr Clark detailed a total of £33.5m in grants from a reserved pot of £50m to help drive forward proposals.

Lockheed will get the lion's share at £23.5. The company wants to bring the Electron rocket to Scotland. Currently, this vehicle flies out of New Zealand. A British version of the vehicle would have a propulsion unit and satellite dispenser developed and built at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, Harwell in Oxfordshire, and in Reading.

Patrick Wood is Lockheed Martin's senior executive in the UK. "As a country we've not invested in launch vehicles since 1971 and Black Arrow, which put up the Prospero satellite. I'm really proud to be working with the Lockheed Martin team and our partners in delivering the the first launch from British soil," he told BBC News.

HIE will develop the launch complex at A'Mhoine, with Lockheed using one pad, and a second pad likely to go to Orbex. This is a new company that has been developing a 17m-tall rocket out of the public eye.

On Monday, however, the firm was very forward in discussing its plans, which have now been backed through a UK Space Agency grant to the tune of £5.5m.

"We will be putting a new factory into Scotland where we will be doing the main production and integration of the vehicles. The vehicles will then be transported to Sutherland," explained Orbex CEO, Chris Larmour. "Internally, I don't think we realised just how big today is because we've been focussed on technical tasks. But this morning at the show, I think we're beginning to realise just how big a moment this is."

The UK government has been considering the idea of home spaceports for a decade now, and has updated the legislation that would make them possible. While the headline news focussed on Scotland and the launch of rockets from the ground, £2m has also been released to further investigations into the siting of a "horizontal launch" spaceport as well.

This would see a modified aeroplane leave a British runway, climb to altitude somewhere out over the ocean and then release a rocket that can put the satellite in orbit. A number of such systems are presently in development.

The UK government has announced a new £2 million development fund for horizontal launch spaceports across the UK at sites including Prestwick in Scotland, Newquay in Cornwall and LLanbedr in Wales. The UK space agency says the space flight market was potentially worth £3.8million to the British economy over the next decade.

Nick Myall

News editor

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