Scotland is on track to host the UK’s first space port, with its inaugural rocket launch scheduled for next year.
Small satellites would be carried into orbit from the Sutherland vertical launch site, aboard the Prime rocket being built by UK start-up company Orbex.
The announcement was made at Expo 2020 Dubai's UK pavilion on Wednesday.
The space port in northern Scotland is on Sutherland’s Moine Peninsula and would be the first to start operations. But four additional ones — horizontal and vertical launch sites — are also in development in other parts of the country.
Launch sites from Scotland offer access to both polar and sun-synchronous orbits, which are ideal for Earth-observation satellites.
Daniel Smith, founder of AstroAgency and former co-chairman of the Scottish Space Leadership Council, told The National that Scotland’s first rocket launch is on schedule.
“We've not reached orbit from Scotland yet, but we plan to next year,” said Mr Smith, who was recently nominated for a Sir Arthur Clarke Award for his services to the UK space sector.
“We have many benefits when it comes to launch because of where we are based — you're not flying over populated areas in Scotland.
“So, we're very lucky in that respect, but it's about, kind of, capitalising on that situation.”
Vertical launches are the kind most people are familiar with. Horizontal launches typically occur from an airport, allowing an aircraft to fly up to a launch location where the rocket will be released from underneath a wing. The rocket then ignites and lifts into space.
Three vertical launch sites are located at Sutherland, Western Isles and Shetland, while horizontal launch pads are in Machrihanish and Prestwick.
The efforts fall under Scotland’s new space strategy, which was launched officially on Wednesday at Expo 2020 Dubai’s UK pavilion.
It includes achieving a £4 billion share of the global space market and creating 20,000 jobs in the sector by 2030.
The goal is to launch 2,000 small satellites by then to improve science research, telecommunications and internet connectivity in Scotland.
“This was a strategy that's been written by government, industry and academia all together.
“We’ve almost been writing it informally over the last few years and now it’s a chance to put it down on paper and signal our intentions,” Mr Smith said.
A key focus of the strategy is to make the space sector as sustainable as possible. One of the space ports is said to be the world’s greenest launch site.
“There are some important themes around sustainability. One of the launch providers uses fuel from un-recyclable plastic,” Mr Smith said.
“Another launch vehicle is using a bio propellant.
“We already have all the benefits from space data that are helping with environment and sustainability.
“We have companies that are tracking climate change and ones that are that are tracking illegal mining, fishing activity and coastal erosion.”
The space ports are expected to attract launch companies looking to place small satellites in orbit, particularly Earth-observation satellites.
There is a huge market for data collected by Earth-observation satellites and is currently valued at $1.6 billion, but is expected to reach $4.5 billion by 2026.
“It’s a massive growing market. There are so many uses for space data and such strong demand for satellites to be launched. That’s what we’re really able to offer.”
Scotland’s space sector is mostly being driven by start-ups, small and medium-sized companies.
Space businesses have increased by more than 65 per cent since 2016, with the sector proportionately employing more than twice as many people in Scotland as the rest of the UK.
“We don’t really have a big space [companies] in Scotland. It's mostly small and medium sized companies,” Mr Smith said.
“In all, we've got fast growing ecosystem and lots of new start-ups.”