Forres firm to lead build of Sutherland spaceport

Artists impression of Orbex Prime launch from Sutherland Spaceport. Courtesy of Orbex

A Forres-based aerospace firm is to build and operate the first vertical launch site for satellites on the UK mainland.

Orbex has signed a lease with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for the spaceport location on community-owned land in north-west Sutherland. HIE has been developing launch plans for years and leases the site from Melness Crofters’ Estate.

The 10-acre launch site will become the long-term ‘home’ spaceport of Orbex and will see the launch of up to 12 orbital rockets per year, carrying satellites into low Earth orbit.

HIE identified the potential for the Highlands and Islands to play a major role in the UK’s space sector several years ago, recognising that rural locations close to coasts and have a northern latitude can make ‘ideal’ satellite launch sites.

With the backing of the UK Space Agency, HIE set to work developing plans for the Sutherland spaceport in 2018, with input from architects NORR and construction consultants Gardiner and Theobald. At the same time, HIE commissioned detailed environmental studies to inform a range of protection measures.

Jacobs will take the role of prime construction contractor on behalf of Orbex. The firm will draw on its experience of managing and operating highly regulated sites such as Cape Canaveral in the United States.

Jacobs is NASA’s largest services provider, delivering mission-tailored solutions and full lifecycle aerospace capabilities including the Mars Perseverance Rover and the Artemis deep space human exploration program.

Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex, said, “We are very grateful for the work that HIE and the Melness Crofters Estate have done, in getting us to the point where we can take the baton and start construction.

David Oxley of HIE (left) Chris Larmour, Orbex (right) sign the Sutherland Spaceport lease agreement. (Credit: Orbex)

“We have collaborated closely with them over the past few years, and we are completely aligned in our vision of delivering a sustainable spaceport that will bring jobs and prosperity to the region. Orbex is the first European launcher company to also manage a dedicated spaceport. It is an important competitive advantage to the company, which will make it really easy for us to work with customers as we scale up our operations.”

Karen Wiemelt, senior VP at Jacobs Energy, Security, and Technology, added,“The Orbex Prime rocket promises to be a game changer for small satellite developers and operators, enabling them to launch light satellites much more efficiently and cost-effectively. Sutherland Spaceport is an important development for the European space industry and will bring major economic and social benefits to North Highland and Moray, where our business has been active for decades in supporting operations, decommissioning and remediation at the Dounreay nuclear site.”

David Oxley, director of strategic projects at the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said, “The space industry represents a huge economic opportunity for the Highlands and Islands and for Scotland. The steps we’ve taken to establish launch capability in Sutherland have already delivered a significant economic impact as a key factor in attracting Orbex to establish their manufacturing facility and test site in Moray, creating dozens of skilled jobs, with many more in the pipeline.

“We believe the spaceport has the capacity to generate around 250 jobs in our region, including 40 on site, plus opportunities in manufacturing, supply chain, research and service provision.

“With Orbex now set to build and operate the spaceport, we’ve reached a key stage in our partnership that will not only see launches happening from Sutherland but a whole range of wider economic benefits delivered for the Highlands and Islands.”