The UK has selected the site for its first ever spaceport. The chosen location is Sutherland, on the A’Mhoine peninsula on the north coast of Scotland. Local business development agency, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, will receive £2.5 million in funding ($3.3 million) from the UK government, with the first rocket launches planned for the early 2020s.
The spaceport is being built with the hope that the UK can grab a slice of the growing market for small satellite launches. The country is already home to many component and satellite makers, like Printech Circuit Laboratories and Surrey Satellite Technology, and adding the ability to launch satellites locally would increase its international appeal.
In recent years, a new breed of small satellites have created a boom in the space industry. These satellites are often the size of a shoebox or smaller, and far more technologically capable than older, larger models. This means they’re cheaper to launch and can be put to a range of uses: from communications, to weather monitoring, to scientific experiments. It’s estimated that the global market for such launches (including supporting infrastructure) is currently worth $339 billion, and will grow eightfold by 2045 to $2.7 trillion.
The Sutherland site was selected in part due to its beneficial geography. It’s located on the coast in a sparsely populated area, meaning any rocket failures can fall harmlessly into the ocean or empty land. Rockets can also take a direct path from the tip of the Scottish peninsula to above the Arctic Circle. This is a good fit for small satellites particularly, which are often placed in polar orbits; circling the Earth, passing over the Arctic and Antarctic.
The UK Space Agency has said that the spaceflight market could add £3.8 billion ($5 billion) to the country’s economy over the next decade. As well as the vertical launch site in Sutherland, the government is also putting aside money for a “horizontal” spaceport elsewhere in the country. Such launches will use modified commercial airplanes to ferry satellites to a certain altitude above the ocean before releasing them into orbit.
Business secretary Greg Clark said the UK’s “thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain” put it in a “leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites.” However, the UK’s aerospace trade body, ADS, has warned that this sector of the economy will be dealt a severe blow by Brexit, which is expected to increase the cost of importing materials and components necessary for the space industry.
Brexit won’t scare away all investment though, and the Sutherland site will be built with the help of a consortium that includes US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s UK executive for space, noted in a statement that the UK has not invested in space launch vehicles since the 1970s, when the Black Arrow rocket was used to launch the Prospero satellite from Woomera, in Australia. This time the launches will be local. As Wood said, “the countdown to the first orbital rocket launch from UK soil has officially begun.”