A tiny peninsula on the tip of Scotland’s north coast could be the place where the UK officially enters the space race.
The A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland has been chosen by the UK Space Agency as the potential location for the UK’s first spaceport.
The agency said the site, between Tongue and Durness, was chosen as it is the best place in the UK to reach highly sought-after satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) will be given £2.5 million from the UK Government to develop the spaceport which could be up and running by the early 2020s.
What is a spaceport?
The UK’s first spaceport would allow the launch of small vertical rockets into low-Earth orbit.
With the rise in private spaceflight, and seeing the success of companies like SpaceX, there’s been an increasing demand for small powerful rockets that can launch small communications satellites into orbit at a low cost.
The remote site would act much like a normal airport does, providing the infrastructure that would allow private firms to launch their rockets safely into space.
What types of rockets would it launch?
Sadly you’re not going to be seeing the kind of large spacecraft that we see launch from one of NASA’s many launchpads in the US.
Instead the UK’s spaceport will become the home of smaller rockets that can quickly and cheaply launch scientific experiments, small communications satellites into orbit.
At the moment a number of companies have got behind the spaceport including the US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin which wants to bring its Electron rocket to Scotland.
In addition UK-based rocket builder Orbex has said that it has received some £30m in public and private funding to help it launch its Prime rocket from the Scotland-based spaceport.
In much the same way that small companies are innovating in the arenas of self-driving cars and flying taxis, so too is Orbex hoping to revolutionise the way we launch rockets into space.
Its Prime rocket cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to conventional launches and it also contains a unique launching system that it claims leaves zero orbital debris or ‘space junk’.
When will the spaceport open?
This announcement isn’t a confirmation that diggers can start moving in. Instead it’s £2.5m of funding to help the Highlands and Islands Enterprise actually get the project started.
From there it’s hoped that private companies such as Orbex and Lockheed Martin can then help in the development of the site.
The government’s not hanging around either, it hopes to open the spaceport within the next five years with launches taking place in the early 2020s.
Will there be more spaceports in the UK?
In short, yes. While Sutherland will be the first conventional rocket pad in the UK there are plans to convert existing airports into new ‘horizontal’ spaceports in future.
The Government has announced an additional £2m to help develop sites in Prestwick, Newquay, Cammpbeltown and Llanbedr.
A horizontal spaceport launches spacecraft via a conventional plane which takes off, reaches an extremely high altitude and then launches the rocket from there.
This piggyback approach reduces the cost by taking the spacecraft some of the way already using a conventional aircraft.
One such organisation that’s already investing heavily in this approach is Virgin Orbit which uses a converted Boeing 747 to piggyback its LauncherOne rocket into orbit.
The space agency said the spaceflight market is potentially worth £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the next decade.
Agency chief executive Graham Turnock said the spaceport grant would “help kick-start an exciting new era for the UK space industry”.
Business Secretary Greg Clark said: “As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy.
“The UK’s thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the UK in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites.”
The consortium behind the Sutherland spaceport proposal includes US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin.
HIE chief executive Charlotte Wright said: “The decision to support the UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland is tremendous news for our region and for Scotland as a whole.
“The international space sector is growing and we want to ensure the region is ready to reap the economic benefits that will be generated from this fantastic opportunity.”