While we await the outcome of the public consultation on the proposed Sutherland spaceport and the planning permissions, we have taken a look at the risks and benefits of the location compared to all other proposed launch sites.
The Sutherland site at A ‘Mhoine in the Scottish Highlands was selected by the UK Space Agency as its preferred site for a UK Spaceport and it awarded grants to a consortium headed up by Lockheed Martin and Orbex Space to carry out all the necessary work to get it up and running. The plans have now been drawn up and are going through an extensive public consultation process to give people the opportunity to ask questions or simply satisfy their curiosity.
Many of the objections to that particular location to date have been around various environmental issues and lack of infrastructure. With the surrounding peat bogs being at the centre of most objections as well as wildlife with many rare & protected breeds of birds frequently being spotted in the immediate area.
Those who objected on the grounds of the peat bog were basing their objections on the ability of peat to capture carbon more effectively than even the amazon rainforest, making it a crucial environment in the efforts to tackle climate change. There are, however, other reasons why the peatlands on which the spaceport is to be built, are a risky option. Now, whilst large areas a wet and boggy, there are huge swathes of the area that are dry peatlands that represent a huge fire risk.
As recent as May this year, the peatlands in Sutherland went on fire, most likely due to the seriously hot weather. And at that time the fire was dealt with quite promptly, however it had spread extremely quickly and still resulted in 20,000 acres being scorched. The fire burned for six days.
The University of Highlands and Islands have recently started a project to determine the full impact of disturbing natural peatlands and also the impact that wildfires can have on the climate and local wildlife.
The thing about peat fires, is that they can be extremely difficult to put out. Peat is used as a fuel and as such when it catches light it will burn down the way as well as on the surface. Think of it in the same way as you would coal or even charcoal you would use on your barbecue.
The proposed Sutherland Spaceport site will have a “safety zone” around the launch pad, but as has been demonstrated in the past, a rocket launch that goes wrong won’t necessarily happen on the launch pad. If a rocket fails mid-air, particularly if it’s quite early in its flight then the resulting descent could have absolutely catastrophic effects if it ignited the peatlands – particularly as it would still be heavily laden with fuel.
We only need to look back at the disastrous Proton rocket launch we reported on at the end of September to see just how badly things can go…