Even though the UK produces more satellites than any other European country, it still cannot offer an end-to-end launch service. In contrast to that, the US has its own rocket manufacturers (Elon Musk with SpaceX, to name just a few) and its own launch pads to deliver payloads into calculated orbits. In this regard, the UK lags behind — even despite its strong aerospace potential. On the bright side, the government does understand the importance of a new space race and is willing to keep up. To keep its leading position in the space niche, the UK is working on several spaceport projects.
Competition for Becoming the First UK-based Spaceport
Seven UK spaceport applications have already been submitted so far. Most of them are located in Scotland since this region has the strongest tech and human resources base. Over a hundred aerospace companies are working in Glasgow, producing more smallsats than any other European region.
Besides, Scotland’s location ensures precise satellite delivery on a northerly trajectory. This, along with its low population density and plenty of available sites far from residential areas, makes the region a perfect spaceport construction spot. So far, the most promising facilities pending construction approval are Sutherland, Shetland, and Cornwall. Interestingly, Cornwall is a horizontal launch facility with Virgin Orbit as its main client. So, different launch technology cannot place Sutherland and Cornwall as direct competitors. Presumably, the UK will have both vertical and horizontal launch pads, and many believe that Sutherland’s vertical spaceport has the highest commissioning odds to date. But does it?
Sutherland Spaceport: Progress so Far
Many believe Sutherland Space Hub has the potential to become the first UK spaceport. Indeed, its progress has been impressive so far, especially given that this project originated in 2018, four years after many other shortlisted facilities.
Two years after the project proposition, spaceport developer Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has submitted final construction plans. The plans, along with a vast environmental impact assessment, were presented to the local council in February 2020.
On June 26, after careful assessment, the local council stated that they are eager to approve the application. Right after, the Scottish Ministers were notified of this decision. In its turn, the Ministry announced that they have no plans to interfere with the application, leaving the final decision entirely to the local authorities.
Ever since the spaceport construction was announced, aerospace companies started showing interest in the facility. A Scottish-based Orbex Space that originates from Denmark should become one of Sutherland’s residents. The UK Space Agency supports this decision and has already granted the company £5.5 million for launchpad construction.
The government has allocated £2.5 more million to Sutherland Space Hub construction. Other notable investors include spaceport’s primary developer Highlands and Islands enterprise. To date, the company has £9.8 million into this project. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority planned to invest five more million, but these plans have not yet been confirmed.
So, the current investment amount can roughly be estimated at £18 million. In contrast to that, the project cost estimate stands at £30 million. This money can still be secured before the construction begins. However, Sutherland spaceport has other matters challenging its construction process — and these matters will have to be resolved if HIE wants Sutherland to see the light of day.
In development since 2018: Sutherland’s Future Potential
Despite undeniable achievements, Sutherland does face certain challenges. Spaceport construction plans were announced in 2018, but as of 2021, there is no significant progress to talk about. One of the greatest obstacles in Sutherland’s plans is the opposition from the environmentalists. As stated in Warrington Worldwide, the project has received 400 application objections claiming that the facility will threaten local wildlife.
Mostly, activists are concerned about peat bog destruction. Since peat bogs are the natural resources for carbon capture, spaceport construction can speed up an already pressing global warming process. Wildlife activists are concerned about local bird species. They suggest that no launches can take place in the breeding season, but it does not really make sense to put the spaceport in standby mode for 6-7 weeks each year.
Orbex’s problems with finances are another pressing concern. Its innovative Prime rocket was supposed to start commercial launches by early 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic and associated challenges with gaining investment put those plans on hold. This, in turn, means that interested investors would rather invest in Orbex’s competitor, Lockheed Martin because their rockets are already operational.
Besides, Orbex does not have a very good reputation with the local investors. Some doubt the transparency of its financial affairs, especially after Catriona Francis, a former UK Space Agency employee, joined the Orbex team. The public did not take this announcement kindly because it was Catriona’s division that gave Orbex the grant in the first place. What’s more, there was no job vacancy posting from the space company and no competition for Francis’s current position in Orbex.
Next, Sutherland seems to be losing its potential launch providers. An American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin was one of the companies to launch from Sutherland. Last year, however, the company decided to relocate to Shetland. Shetland is another vertical launch facility that has high approval chances. To be fair, it faces more or less the same challenges as Sutherland — even environmentalists voice the same concerns.
So, it is not quite clear why Lockheed Martin decided to go with another spaceport. According to their official statement, Lockheed and Orbex had ‘technical differences’ in Sutherland. Their rockets do run on different fuels, with different storage conditions. This would imply building two separate launch pads for the companies, but HIE was ready to go for that.
So far, it is not clear whether Sutherland will gain a construction permit. Despite this facility’s potential and convenient location, the progress is slower than one may expect. And the simple fact that an established American company has suddenly decided to support another, equally promising, spaceport project does raise a red flag.