Launch site built in Scotland in race to send first rocket into space from UK
Britain aiming to become Europe’s leading provider of small satellite launches by 2030 The UK Space Agency has backed a healthcare drone start-up founded by NHS staff, to help in the response to Covid-19.
The first vertical rocket launch from UK territory has moved a step closer with a new test site built in northern Scotland.
The launch pad has been installed in Kinloss, Moray, by private space company Orbex, one of those vying to send the UK’s first rocket into low Earth orbit this year.
A space race is under way with two Scottish sites leading the contest to fire the first rocket from Britain as part of broader ambitions to become the leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe by 2030.
The Orbex Prime rocket will eventually launch from a site 100 kilometres north of Kinloss, in Sutherland near Scotland’s northern coast, and is designed to carry small satellites weighing around 150 kilograms.
The first vertical take-off from a traditional launch pad in the UK is likely to be from the site in Sutherland or one in the Shetland Islands, where industry leader Lockheed Martin has based its UK launch operations.
Scotland has proved popular with aerospace companies because of its sparsely populated northern areas and its easy-to-reach polar orbits, essential for satellites observing the Earth.
Orbex said its test launch pad, weighing more than 40 tonnes, is the first platform to be built in 50 years in the UK.
It can be dismantled and taken by road to Sutherland to be used for the first launch, though no decision has yet been taken.
Orbex applied for a launch licence from authorities in February but declined to say when it was hoping to launch its first rocket.
“This going to be a sustainable business, it’s not just about the first to launch,” said an Orbex spokesman.
Construction at the Sutherland site, owned by a Scottish government development agency, is expected to start this year.
A major hurdle was cleared for the space port last year when Scotland’s largest landowner lost a legal bid to halt development of the site.
Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen, who owns the majority stake in the clothing website Asos, said the development could be damaging to local wildlife but his challenge was rejected.
The site in Shetland used by Lockheed Martin has yet to receive planning permission for its three proposed launch pads and associated infrastructure.
More than 4,800 satellites are currently in space with nearly two thirds of those put into orbit by the United States, according to a database compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The fast-growing space race and demands for services on Earth means that by 2028 four times more satellites than in the past decade will be launched with the vast majority small or microcraft.
European space companies rely mostly on Russia’s site in Kazakhstan, French Guiana in South America and the US for launches.
UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it was hoped the first horizontal launch from a modified plane on UK soil would take place this summer in Newquay, south-west England.