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British spaceports under development

by Staff writer
19 Aug 2021 at 15:37hrs | Views
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Two new British spaceports could be the catalyst to making Britain Europe's newest space superpower. If they can overcome planning challenges, the value to the UK's economy could be hard to measure.

With a world-class record in contributions to aeronautic science, technology, and engineering, it's something of a surprise that the UK hasn't made a greater impact on the modern commercial space industry, dubbed "Space 2.0". Despite decades of expertise and a large pool of scientific talent, Great Britain has yet to launch a vertical rocket into space from the country's soil. This could soon change, however. The UK has stated that it aims to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030, and two new British spaceports planned for sites in Scotland look to be the key to achieving this ambition.

How Will Spaceports Benefit Britain?

Amidst the logistical and economic problems posed by the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to political uncertainties thrown up by Brexit, two competing British spaceports are racing to provide the UK with the infrastructure it needs to become a top commercial space player. Great Britain already has a satellite and space technology export market worth over $300 million every year, while the broader UK economy supported by satellites is worth more than £360 billion.

One of the biggest current growth areas for the global space industry lies in small satellites (smallsats), which is projected to be worth over $10 billion by the end of the decade. Functioning British spaceports would open the country to a wide pool of international and domestic clients eager to find launch partners to enable them to exploit smallsat technology. Many of the UK's most promising space technology firms are already located in Scotland, making the country a natural choice for the first British spaceports.

Are UK Spaceports Nearing Completion?

Of the two British spaceports under development in Scotland, the Sutherland Space Hub is the only one to have won planning permission for the site on the A' Mhòine peninsula in the Scottish Highlands. The spaceport will consist of a single vertical launchpad capable of firing rockets with payloads of up to 500kg. The Sutherland Space Hub development is supported by a Scottish-based, Danish-run rocket company Orbex with employees in Denmark and Germany as its chief partner. They will be hoping to have the first rockets launched from the Sutherland site before the end of 2022.

US aerospace corporation Lockheed Martin was originally on board as a major partner, providing the development with considerable support. However, the American firm seems to have changed its opinion about the site as it's pulled out of Sutherland and is now planning to move its UK Pathfinder Launch project to the neighboring Shetland Space Centre. This is not the first difficulty that Space Hub Sutherland has faced in its development: an original plan for two launchpads and 30 launches a year had to be reduced to one launchpad and 12 annual launches following ecological restrictions. Orbex itself is also facing its own problems, having had to apply for an emergency bailout loan despite raising millions in investment.

Further opposition to the Sutherland spaceport is being mounted by Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen, who also happens to be the richest man in Scotland. He's won the right to challenge the development on environmental grounds, a stance that aligns with his Wildland company. The firm has embarked on an ambitious 200-year programme to try and rewild the Scottish Highlands. It's worth noting, though, that Povlsen has a £1.4 million investment in Sutherland Space Hub's competitor, the Shetland Space Centre.

The Shetland Space Centre has targeted a site at Lamba Ness on the island of Unst for the construction of the spaceport. Like the Sutherland Space Hub, the Shetland Space Centre aims to launch its first rocket before the end of 2022. The site will comprise three launchpads, each capable of delivering payloads of up to 1,000 kg to launch a projected 30 rockets every year.

The first customer is likely to be Lockheed Martin in partnership with ABL Space Systems to launch the UK Pathfinder project. However, the future of the Shetland spaceport is by no means set in stone. Planning permission has not been forthcoming for the project. The Historic Environment Scotland (HES) opposes the development because its current site will require the demolition of a historical World War 2 radar base. HES argues that this is too great a cost to pay, especially since alternative sites would be just as suitable. For its part, the Shetland Space Centre is seeking to overturn this rejection.

Further Efforts Required to Leverage British Spaceports

With regards to the competition between the two British spaceports in Scotland, the government seems to believe that competition can only lead to better performance. Ian Annett, the deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, states that he wants Great Britain "To be the first in Europe to launch small satellites into orbit, attracting innovative businesses from all over the world … putting the UK firmly on the map as Europe's leading small satellite launch destination". However, if the UK wants to take its place at the front of the European space industry, it may not be enough to simply leave the fate of British spaceports to the vagaries of the markets. Two functioning spaceports in close proximity to each other have the potential to attract businesses from all over Europe and will provide Scotland's satellite manufacturers with a critical edge over competitors from other countries. Forecasts suggest that vertical launch capacity could add around £4 billion to Great Britain's economy over the next decade, but British spaceports will need to be up and running soon to make this growth possible.

Final Thoughts

While these British spaceports offer a promising foundation for the expansion of the UK space industry, Great Britain must not allow itself to become complacent. Portugal, Germany, France, Norway, and Sweden are all working to develop their space infrastructure to secure a lucrative increase in market share and attempt to be the first countries in Europe to launch rockets. If the UK wants to take this title, it must redouble its efforts to make Scotland's spaceports a reality.

Source - Byo24News