Blast-off for Britain's ambitious space programme

A Shetland Islands spaceport has been thrust into the spotlight with a plan to launch 30 rockets a year skywards

Powered by automated translation

On a bright, clear day on the northernmost tip of the British Isles, the UK will next summer launch its first rocket into space.

Blasting off from a Shetland Islands peninsula pointing into the Norwegian Sea, the pencil-shaped projectile, half the length of a jumbo jet, will power upwards, climbing 18,000 metres in just 60 seconds.

The rocket will then curve over the Arctic before entering space where its in-built spacecraft will place 10 satellites in low-Earth orbit.

If successful, the lift-off from the Saxavord spaceport will be the start of Britain’s ambition to become an international space centre, with 30 rockets a year powering into its skies from Shetland.

The UK plans to capture 10 per cent of the global satellite market. The new site in Scotland will fire the country’s first vertical-launched rocket.

This will transform Britain’s burgeoning space industry, providing a perfect platform for the hundreds of satellites built in the UK, Saxavord Spaceport’s operations director told The National.

“It'll be transformational because at the moment everybody talks about access to space, they want access to it, but this will give the UK true access,” Scott Hammond said.

Despite Wednesday's test launch of the Skyrora L rocket going awry from a site in Iceland, the operations director said it was "a great learning opportunity for Skyrora" and he "remains confident" that the programme was on track for take-off next year.

Speaking from the Shetland Island of Unst, where chill winds blow straight down from the Arctic, the operations director’s excitement in the evolving UK space industry is evident.

Separately, next month Britain will launch its first satellite into space from Spaceport Cornwall when a converted Virgin Orbit jumbo 747 takes off with a rocket strapped under its wing. That aircraft-borne approach is just the start for the country while in the far north technicians are working on a launch pad for more conventional means of conquering space.

Months later the first rocket will blast off from one of three launch pads built on the island of Unst on a sub-orbital test flight over the polar region.

In late summer the station will most likely launch a 35-metre rocket, slightly taller than Nasa’s Mercury that in 1962 spirited John Glenn upwards to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Key to the Shetland spaceport's success is “location, location, location,” said Mr Hammond, a former Tornado jet pilot. The whole project, including three launch pads on the 87-hectare site, mission control building and seven ground stations around the globe will cost the private company about £100m.

For inter-planetary launches, sites close to the Equator are key, because the Earth’s spinning axis generates speeds of 365 metres per second whereas this slows to 240mps in the far north.

“But if you want to get into polar orbits you don't want that much energy because you have to counter it with fuel,” Mr Hammond said. “And in Unst there is nothing between us and the Arctic, so we can go straight into the orbit.”

Unst has many qualities that puts it 30 per cent above any other UK location for vertical launches, according to a report backed by the UK Space Agency. Its population numbers 600, it is the most northern part of Britain but, unlike Norway, it does not experience the freezing climate of the Arctic Circle.

The area provides 15 per cent of the UK’s oil and gas, which means a huge infrastructure is in place with many daily flights to the island and, more importantly, two ferries, one of which is cleared to ship hazardous loads.

That will allow it to bring in the rocket parts that fit into regular shipping containers, satellites and provisions for the 50 personnel who will man the mission control centre, complete with its Cape Canaveral-like banks of screens.

While the rockets burn hydrocarbons it is a “very clean burn” of kerosene and liquid oxygen generating less CO2 emissions than an Airbus A320 flying from Newcastle to London, Mr Hammond said.

That fuel concoction will propel the rocket to 18,000 metres in a minute, taking a total of eight minutes to get into orbit 1,200 kilometres north of the northernmost point of the inhabited British Isles.

Once there the orbital manoeuvring vehicle, similar to a spacecraft, will drop the satellites into position, many of them designed in Glasgow, to examine changes to the planet.

“If you look at what space contributes to the climate emergency, a vast majority of the satellites are Earth-observation ones able to look down to see where deforestation is happening and analyse the health of the planet,” Mr Hammond said.

As a commercial operation the spaceport will determine what size of rocket it uses depending on the payload, which could vary from 150 kilograms to 1,500kg. “We don't know where exactly the sweet spot in the market is going to be,” he said. “Because we are a private company we will have a variety of rocket sizes, from 15m to 35m.”

The cost per kilogramme of satellite load is between $10,000 and $30,000, putting an average 5kg cube satellite launch at $100,000.

Russia’s actions have only served to significantly increase Shetland’s orderbook, with the invasion of Ukraine generating a huge interest in the UK’s space programme after sanctions shut down Moscow’s satellite launches from Kazakhstan.

The Ukraine war was “a dreadful thing to have benefited from, but those satellites launches are not going to go back to Kazakhstan,” Mr Hammond said.

“We've got huge amounts of interest from within the UK, obviously, then we've got two American companies that want to launch, including Lockheed Martin, but we've also got European companies, German, French and Polish. They all want to launch from us because of our location.” The spaceport would also welcome satellites from the Middle East.

The Shetland team has had “initial conversations” with the UAE space agency with a view to “potentially working together” to send Emirati technicians to see the spaceport being set up, Mr Hammond said.

He also praised the UAE for its “really impressive” space programme that has put a lander on Mars, a similar mission expected on the Moon in 2024 and a planned flight to Venus in 2028.

Updated: October 14, 2022, 6:00 PM