Britain wants to build its first spaceport for launching satellites in Scotland, with the government kick-starting the project by handing almost £30 million (Dh146.1m) in grants to companies including Lockheed Martin.
UK Business Minister Greg Clark said the new site at Sutherland on the northern-most tip of mainland Scotland would provide facilities for space rockets and satellites to take off into orbit, Reuters reported on Monday.
Under the plans announced at the Farnborough Air Show outside London, US group Lockheed and its partners will receive £23.5m in grants from the UK Space Agency which will go towards establishing launch operations at Sutherland and developing a new system for deploying small satellites in Reading, southern England.
London-based Orbex has received £5.5m to build a new rocket to launch from the site at Sutherland, which will help develop its orbital launch vehicle to deliver the small satellites into orbit.
The government said the investments were the first steps to developing a national space programme.
"We want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy," Mr Clark said.
Parliament passed the Space Industry Act earlier this year, aiming to help the nation capitalise on the burgeoning commercial interest in space, according to Bloomberg. Supporters say the effort will bring new jobs and billions of pounds to the UK economy. The government has allocated a £50m fund to help further the industry.
“We are committed to supporting a commercial market for access to space in the UK, and we will continue to engage with any company who seeks to operate here,” said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency.
Britain is keen to boost its space sector at a time when it faces a challenge because of the country's departure from the European Union next year. This has meant some UK-based companies have been excluded from future work on the EU's €10 billion (Dh42.99bn) Galileo satellite programme, according to Reuters.
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Britain's space industry is considered a success story: it is growing four times faster than the rest of the UK economy and the country has a 7 per cent share of the global space industry.
Funding was also provided to other sites in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the western tip of England, which are examining their potential for horizontal spaceports. Horizontal spaceports will be required further in the future to underpin a UK space flight market.
Small satellites used for observing conditions on the ground are the fastest growing segment of the $260.5bn global satellite industry, according to the Satellite Industries Association.
The government said satellites could be launched from Sutherland as soon as the early 2020s and hundreds of jobs could be created.
US and British officials will soon begin formal talks on a deal to establish “legal and technical safeguards for sensitive US space technologies to be used in the UK,” the UK Space Agency said. Such an agreement would make it easier for US companies to launch from a British spaceport, Bloomberg reported.
The UK produces almost half of the small satellites and about a quarter of the world’s telecommunications satellites, according to the space agency.
With the new spaceport, “the UK will become Europe’s first one-stop-shop for building, launching and operating satellites”, the agency said.