Sutherland Spaceport

Government announces funding for UK spaceports to boost domestic sector

Image credit: uk government

Vertical and horizontal spaceports are to be constructed in the UK under new government plans designed to boost the domestic space industry.

The first vertical launch site will be constructed in Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland, with the inaugural lift-offs anticipated to take place in the early 2020s.

Initial funding of £2.5m will go to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to develop the site, which the UK Space Agency said it selected because Scotland is the best place in the UK to reach highly sought-after satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets.

£2m will also be allocated to creating horizontal launch spaceport sites across Britain, with places such as Newquay, Glasgow Prestwick and Snowdonia being considered.

Lockheed Martin has been chosen to support HIE in developing the Sutherland site at Melness, establishing vertical launch operations using proven technology.

Separately the company's Reading facility will develop an innovative system for deploying up to six small satellites to separate orbits.

The two Lockheed Martin projects are backed by grants totalling £23.5m from the UK Space Agency. 

UKSA has also awarded £5.5m to UK-based Orbex to build an innovative rocket to deliver small satellites to orbit from the Sutherland site. This orbital launch vehicle, called Prime, will use a single renewable fuel, bio-propane, that is said to cut carbon emissions by 90 per cent compared to hydrocarbon fuels.

Low-cost access to space is important for the UK’s thriving space sector. New spaceport capability will complement the domestic satellite manufacture sector, with Glasgow already building more satellites than any other European city.

Horizontal launch sites will be used by the likes of Virgin Galactic to send tourists into space to experience weightlessness. Last week, Virgin Galactic announced that its first suborbital flights would launch from a spaceport in Italy, although this does not preclude expansion to other countries such as the UK in future.

“As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy,” Business Secretary Greg Clark said.

“The UK’s thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the UK in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites.

“This will build on our global reputation for manufacturing small satellites and help the whole country capitalise on the huge potential of the commercial space age.”

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: “The space sector is an important player in the UK’s economy and our recent Space Industry Act has unlocked the potential for hundreds of new jobs and billions of revenue for British business across the country.

“Today’s announcement is exciting for places like Newquay in Cornwall, too, paving the way for further potential spaceports in the future.”

The commercial space sector is estimated to be worth a potential £3.8bn to the UK economy over the next decade and Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire Global, said this funding will help to overcome “the most unpredictable part of the overall supply chain”, with launches often delayed by months or even years.

“In Spire, Scotland already sports Europe’s most advanced and prolific satellite manufacturing capability and with a spaceport right next door, enabling clockwork-like launches, we can finally get our space sector supply chain to be truly integrated,” he said.

Evan Dixon, CEO of European broadband retail at Viasat said that investment in the space sector will boost other sectors, too: “By looking to the stars, we bring innovation, employment and business growth to the UK economy.

“Indeed, space is one of the eight great technologies for UK. It is a dynamic, fast-growing sector which employs some of the country’s top talent, as well as contributing to economic growth and other important national needs, such as Earth observation and satellite communications.

“This investment will be key towards meeting the objectives outlined in the UK Space Industry Bill and will help to drive further innovation and employment back into the British economy.”

In May, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson said the UK needs to be ready to counter threats from space, such as the jamming of military satellites. 

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