Artists Impression Of Orbex Prime Launch

Construction starts on UK’s first vertical rocket launch pad

Image credit: Orbex

Construction on the first vertical launch spaceport to be built on the UK mainland has begun in Scotland.

Rocket manufacturer Orbex is building Sutherland Spaceport with hopes to use the site to launch up to 12 orbital rockets per year.

The facility is also intended to become the first carbon-neutral spaceport in the world, both in its construction and its operation. As part of the efforts, peat that will be lifted during the construction will be re-used to repair large areas of peatland in other locations that have degraded over centuries.

The government hopes to grow the UK’s share of the global space market to 10 per cent by 2030. It aims to build multiple spaceports on the mainland, with a view to seeing commercial sub-orbital spaceflight and space tourism from UK spaceports.

The sector has had a rough start to 2023 after the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from the UK by Virgin Orbit failed spectacularly due to a dislodged fuel filter. The firm subsequently laid off most of its staff ahead of last-ditch buy-out talks.

Orbex Prime Rocket At Kinloss Test Stand.

Image credit: Orbex

Economic impact assessments have found that the presence of the spaceport has the potential to generate almost £1bn for the Highlands economy over the next 30 years.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will also contribute £3m to support the development of Sutherland Spaceport following the decommissioning of the nearby Dounreay nuclear power station, as part of its remit to retire the UK’s oldest nuclear sites while supporting affected communities and the environment. 

In May 2022, Orbex revealed its Prime rocket (pictured) – a 19-metre long, two-stage rocket designed to transport small satellites weighing up to 180kg into Low Earth Orbit.

The six engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of around 80km. The single engine on the second stage will complete the journey to LEO, allowing the release of the rocket’s payload of small commercial satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Orbex said its Prime rocket is powered by a renewable biofuel that reduces its carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly sized rockets being developed elsewhere around the world.

Kristian von Bengtson, Orbex Interim CEO, said: “Sutherland represents a new breed of spaceport, for a new breed of rocket. This is 21st-century, agile spaceflight with sustainability at its core. With the construction of Sutherland Spaceport under way, this is an important piece of the puzzle that will make the UK a modern space nation.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is an incredibly exciting time for the space sector, with the first orbital launch from UK soil expected to take place in Scotland later this year.

“Despite our relatively small country, Scotland plays a leading role in the space sector and with the global market projected to grow to £490bn by 2030, we are well placed to become Europe’s leading space nation by 2030.”

Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said: “Not only will Sutherland Spaceport unlock 250 new job opportunities and boost the Highlands and Islands economy, but its carbon-neutral ambition underlines the UK’s position as a world-leader in sustainable space activities.”

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