Green light for satellite launch site plans

HIGHLANDS and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has had plans approved for the build of a vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland.

HIE said that The Highland Council’s approval means small commercial satellites and launch vehicles designed and manufactured in Scotland could be heading into orbit from the space hub within the next few years.

Space Hub Sutherland is proposed to be built on an area of peatland next to the A838 on the Melness Crofters Estate. Launch-related infrastructure will include a control centre, 2.5km of road and a launch pad – occupying a total of just over 10 acres of the 740-acre site.

In 2018, HIE approved a principle budget of £17.4 million for the project, including contributions of £2.5 million from the UK Space Agency, and £5 million from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

HIE said an economic impact assessment concluded that developing the spaceport could support around 250 jobs in the Highlands and islands, including 61 in Sutherland and Caithness – 44 of which being on-site at the hub.

With the approval for the build of the vertical launch spaceport secured, HIE said that the first launch could be as early as 2020 – with the launched satellites being used for Earth observation.

David Oxley, director of business growth at HIE said, “Gaining planning approval from the council is a huge step forward for Space Hub Sutherland. The UK’s space ambitions present a wonderful opportunity for the Highlands and Islands. A vertical launch spaceport is a key piece of the national jigsaw, along with the design and manufacture of satellites and launch vehicles, that will ensure Scotland can derive maximum economic benefits from this growing and exciting sector.

“We are very aware of the environmental challenges presented by a project of this kind, particularly in such wild and unspoilt area as A’ Mhòine. We have been diligent in carrying out survey work to understand and mitigate all potential impacts, including a restoration plan that will see all of the peat that is dug out during construction retained on site and used to repair areas that were degraded by past digging.

“Part of our ambition is to create the world’s most low-carbon space centre and the conditions applied to the planning approval will help us make that a reality. Another important aspect is the role that satellites we launch from Sutherland will play in gathering data that helps understand and address the impact of global climate change. When all these factors are put together, that makes today’s decision a good result not just for the economy, but for the environment as well.”

A spokesperson from the UK Government commented, “This is a significant milestone for Space Hub Sutherland and another step towards putting the UK on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination. Scotland is already a global hub for satellite manufacturing and the addition of commercial launch from the Highlands will bring new jobs and economic growth to local communities, while supporting businesses and supply chains across the whole of the UK. The UK Government is committed to minimising the environmental impact of spaceflight activities and developing a new National Space Strategy which recognises the unique contribution of satellite technology to our understanding of global issues like climate change and providing essential environmental monitoring and data services.”