Work to start in weeks for spaceport on UK’s northernmost island

The SaxaVord Spaceport is leading the race to carry out northern Europe’s first vertical launch

A rendering of the site for the SaxaVord spaceport in Scotland's Shetland Islands. Photo: SaxaVord UK Spaceport
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Building work is due to start on the UK’s first vertical-launch commercial spaceport later this month after authorities backed plans for the £43 million project in the Shetland Islands, Scotland.

The SaxaVord spaceport hopes to carry out the UK and northern Europe’s first vertical launch later this year from the Lamba Ness peninsula in Unst, the most northerly island in the UK.

The company plans for 30 rockets to blast off every year from three launch pads to take advantage of one of Europe’s highest latitudes.

The site will specialise in sending small satellites north to south around the Earth at low altitudes upwards of 200 kilometres.

Northern Scotland has proved popular with aerospace companies because of its location and sparse populations and is seeking to take advantage of the UK’s ambitions to become the leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe by 2030.

The northern location means satellites with greater payloads can be launched into orbit with the same amount of fuel compared to areas further south.

SaxaVord Spaceport said securing planning permission was “monumental in supporting the UK’s ambitions of becoming a global science superpower and establishing the UK as the European hub for commercial spaceflight”.

It said the initial £43m build costs for the project would eventually rise to £100m over the next five years and plans to service telecoms, media, weather and defence industries.

“Our team will collectively do everything in its power to ensure we can deliver this historic mission for Shetland, Scotland, and the UK,” said CEO Frank Strang.

UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said last month he hoped the first vertical launch could be from Shetland, where industry giant Lockheed Martin has based its satellite launch operations.

Work in Shetland is expected to begin at the end of March if Scottish ministers decline to review the planning decision taken by the island authorities in the next four weeks.

SaxaVord also struck a deal with French small launch rocket developer Venture Orbital Systems (VOS) to develop plans for dozens of launches after 2024, it said on Tuesday.

VOS is developing a 15-metre rocket named Zephyr to deliver small payloads of 70-80kg into low Earth orbits and is due to start engine testing later this year.

The booming space industry in northern Scotland will also see a second space hub at Sutherland, on the mainland’s northern coast, which has also received planning permission to build a launch site.

Private space company Orbex has applied for a launch licence and installed a test site at its headquarters 100 kilometres away, but has declined to say when it planned to send its first satellites into orbit.

The global space economy was worth £270 billion in 2019 but will rise to £490bn by 2030, according to the UK Space Agency.

Updated: March 01, 2022, 1:09 PM