The race between Shetland and Sutherland to become first vertical launch site

7th Jun 2020
Shetland Space Centre

In order to expand its influence in the global space market, the UK is actively planning several rocket launch sites on its territory, expanding into a much larger project and getting many advantages, such as more jobs created for Scottish spaceport operators. Work is underway on sites for both vertical and horizontal launches. Several companies have already planned their initial stages of this early start in the UK’s space ambitions.

Sutherland spaceport: aiming to be number one

One of the most promising spaceports is the Sutherland spaceport. Experts suggest that it can become the main Scottish spaceport, due to the specific geographic location, despite the huge opposition from locals.

Significant interest in the location was shown by two companies – Lockheed Martin and Orbex Space. Both received funding from the UKSA to work on the development of a future spaceport.

Rocket Lab, a strategic investment of Lockheed Martin, was previously mentioned as a party interested in the project, but whom we have heard nothing more about. Their plans (according to Lockheed Martin) were to launch the Electron rocket from Sutherland. However, their CEO has since shot down that idea. As the launch vehicle is structurally different from the Orbex Prime rocket, it is known that there would need to be two separate launch complexes, united by one infrastructure, and planning application for the spaceport doesn’t appear to support that.

Lockheed Martin also originally planned to work closely with Sutherland spaceport on the satellite program deployment. However, the company is not focused on one site and is ready to cooperate with various projects in order to increase its influence in the British market, with ongoing discussions suggesting they may very well move their attention to a proposed site in the Shetland Isles.

Alternatives: vertical and horizontal launches

As already mentioned, another promising site is the Shetland Space Center. Today it is the main competitor to Sutherland. The future spaceport has already established partnerships with a number of companies, including the aforementioned Lockheed Martin.

Other project partners involved in rocket launches are:

  • Rocket Factory Augsburg
  • Skyrora
  • Raptor Aerospace.

The latter, in addition to organizing launches of its own vehicles, will provide training and simulation services.

In January 2019, ArianeGroup showed its intention to cooperate with Shetland Space Centre. This was to be a joint venture between the European aerospace company Airbus and the French group Safran.

There are also several horizontal launch projects in the UK. One of them is located in Scotland. This is at Prestwick Glasgow Spaceport. It is based on an existing airport complex, which simplifies the creation of infrastructure. Launches will be handled by Orbital Access Limited. Presumably, Orbital 500R, the main development of the company, will be sent from the facility. However, the participation of Virgin Orbit, which also offers the technology of horizontal orbital launches and expanded Scottish spaceport operators, is not excluded.

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