With a proven history of excellence in aeronautic science and engineering, the UK’s impact on the global space market remains somewhat puzzling to date. Despite an abundance of talent in space-related technologies, Great Britain has never yet completed a vertical rocket launch. However, with an ambition to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030, a series of UK spaceports under development may help catapult the UK space industry onto the international stage. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic and the political turbulence following Brexit, the UK is aiming to kickstart its expansion into commercial spaceflight while giving British science and enterprise a boost.
What is Driving the Development of UK Spaceports?
Despite not having yet launched a rocket, the UK export market for satellites and other space technology is worth over £300 million, while more than £360 billion of the UK’s economic activity is underwritten by satellite technology. Since satellites appear to be one area where the UK space industry is currently the strongest player, competition for the small satellite (smallsat) market seems sensible. Many of these smallsat developers are based in Scotland, which makes Great Britain’s northernmost area an obvious candidate for spaceport development. Scotland’s waters are already hosting a range of dedicated industrial sites, including Britain’s Trident missile defense system and a range of North Sea gas and energy operations. It seems, then, that a new UK spaceport would not be out of place amongst the neighboring infrastructure.
Competing Spaceports: Sutherland and Shetland
With planning permission already granted, construction is scheduled to start on Sutherland spaceport, titled Space Hub Sutherland, in the very near future to allow for orbital launches by 2022. Perched on the A’Mhòine peninsula, the Sutherland site is designed to be capable of delivering payloads of up to 500kg into orbit. A Scottish company with Danish founders and most employees outside Scotland and the UK, space firm Orbex is set to be the first company to attempt a vertical rocket launch at the spaceport. The company was originally set to partner with the US aerospace behemoth Lockheed Martin on the spaceport. Still, the American firm has decided to move its operations to a different spaceport across the country in the Shetlands.
Sutherland spaceport was originally developed to have a pair of launchpads capable of firing up to 30 rockets a year. However, due to ecological restrictions, plans have been scaled back to build a single launchpad for an annual limit of 12 launches. This has left Orbex in a more precarious position. They are now the sole partner of the Sutherland development and have recently sought an emergency bailout loan despite the millions previously secured from investment rounds.
Further complications arise from legal challenges made by the richest man in Scotland. Danish billionaire Holch Povlsen has been litigating against the Sutherland spaceport on ecological grounds on behalf of his company Wildland, which is working on a roadmap to restore the Highlands ecosystem. Admittedly, Povlsen’s efforts may not be completely altruistic: he also has a £1.4 million stake in the development of Shetland Space Centre, which is emerging as a rival to Sutherland to be the first of the UK spaceports to launch rockets. For his part, Povlsen argues that the Shetland Space Centre has the best chance of launching the UK’s first rocket.
Like the Sutherland site, the Shetland Space Centre aims to be launch-capable by 2022. Located in the Shetland Islands, the site’s current design will allow for launching payloads of up to 1,000 kg from three launchpads. ABL Space Systems and Lockheed Martin are among the first firms lining up to launch from the site. The site has yet to receive planning permission, however. Despite the promise of bringing an extra £5 million to the local economy, the development will require the demolition of a historic Second World War radar base, which, as Historic England activists argue, demands preservation.
UK Spaceports: Which Will Launch First?
Both spaceports have certainly not enjoyed a completely smooth path to completion. While the Space Hub Sutherland has at least been granted planning permission, the decision of Lockheed Martin, its largest partner, to jump ship to the Shetland Space Centre is a cause for concern. The restrictions on both the number of launch pads and the number of launches per year may also tie the hands of the development’s stakeholders like Orbex.
By comparison, the much larger Shetland Space Centre has the commercial muscle of Lockheed Martin behind it but has yet to acquire planning permission. In a tug of war between the developers, local officials, and Scotland’s central government, further delays to getting a green light for the site will make it increasingly unlikely for it to be the first of the UK spaceports to stage a successful maiden rocket launch.
Conclusion: Strength Through Competition
The coronavirus pandemic has caused problems for virtually every industry around the world, including many with far smaller scales of logistics than rocket launches. It should be noted, however, that the space industry still grew in 2020. However, it seems certain that the UK government is set on making Great Britain the first country to launch rockets from native soil in Europe. Since Scotland has such a high concentration of cutting-edge satellite manufacturers in a relatively small country, the presence of two neighboring UK spaceports will pay dividends for the country’s space industry as a whole.
Some projections suggest that rocket launch capability could be worth as much as £4 billion to the UK’s economy over the next decade. Although both UK spaceports have their challenges to overcome, the failure of either one to become operational would be a huge blow to the future of the UK space industry. Other European nations with space-faring ambitions are not sitting on their hands waiting for the UK to launch first, as Germany, France, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden continue to pursue a market share of the global space industry. If the UK wishes to make European history, broader efforts to establish functioning UK spaceports must be accelerated.
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