Sutherland Spaceport: The story so far

10th Mar 2020
A Mhoine Peninsula

Sutherland spaceport, which is likely to be the first one in the UK, may start operating next year. The proposed location has had a mixed reception and is currently going through planning process with over 300 objections and just under 90 written submissions supporting the project.

Very soon, if all goes well with their planning application, the UK may see the Sutherland spaceport become a reality. The construction is due to begin in the latter part of this year in the remote area of the Scottish Highlands. The region has the benefit of being ideal for reaching specific orbits as well as having plenty of remote locations that could perfectly accommodate a vertical launch site and all the necessary infrastructure.

The government has already put its weight behind the Sutherland spaceport on the A ‘Mhòine peninsula near the villages of Tongue and Durness. This area was chosen as the preferred site for launching rockets and carrying satellites into suitable orbits.

Electron and Prime wait for Sutherland

Sutherland spaceport will be built with funds from the UK Space Agency and Highland and Islands Enterprise. The estimated service staff for the spaceport is likely to be no more than 40, but with an estimated 450 jobs supported indirectly. Sutherland’s main operators were initially to be the US Aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin and UK-registered Orbex Space, although there have since been some doubts cast over Lockheed’s involvement in the project.

The official name of the project is Sutherland Space Centre. Its construction was announced at the Farnborough Air Show in summer 2018. The site is due to be commissioned this year. Lockheed Martin were initially in support of this project suggesting that they would use the location to launch the RocketLab Electron. Orbex Space remain committed to the location from where they will send their Prime rocket into space.

The UK Space Agency have invested £2.5 million into the construction of the site, with a further £23.5 million given to Lockheed Martin for development of the project. For over two years, Lockheed Martin, through its strategic investment in Rocket Labs, have been successfully operating their own lightweight Electron launch vehicle. The Rocket Labs Electron vehicle due to its low cost and technical characteristics is a very effective option for launching small satellites and CubeSats into orbit, although Rocket Labs have publicly stated that they have no intention of launching from Scotland.

With a payload of 250 kg and 150 kg per LEO and SSO, respectively, the cost of launching Electron is estimated at around $5-6 million. In contrast, most present-day launch vehicles are much heavier, and their launch costs vary from $10 million to $60 million – Space X Falcon 9 for example.

Orbex Space, which is currently working on its ultra-light Prime vehicle with a carrying capacity of up to 200 kg to SSO, is also working on making launchers smaller and more lightweight. The first Prime launches are due in 2021, and Orbex Space plans to execute them from Sutherland spaceport.

Environmental Opposition

The UK government and UK Space Agency are frequently emphasizing the importance of this initiative as the spaceport construction opens up a whole new range of prospects for the UK in terms of providing a full cycle of space services, from manufacturing satellites to launching them into orbit. However, despite these positives, Sutherland spaceport has faced strong opposition.

The main problem is that the planned construction site is located in a peat field. The peat plays a significant role in storing carbon dioxide, which is extremely important if we are to make serious efforts towards tackling climate change. Some environmentalists claim that Sutherland spaceport poses a threat to the region’s ecology and have actively petitioned against its construction.

A Mhoine Peninsula
The proposed site for the Sutherland space port.

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