UK's first orbital rocket launch could take place in October in Scotland

Announcement comes after Spaceport Cornwall tried a horizontal satellite launch in January

A computer-generated image from SaxaVord spaceport of a rocket taking off from Unst, in the Shetland Islands. PA
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The SaxaVord spaceport on Scotland's Shetland Islands will host the UK’s first orbital rocket launch in October or November this year, officials have said.

Based on the northern tip of the Shetland Islands, the spaceport is preparing to host the first vertical launch of satellites from UK soil.

The announcement comes after Spaceport Cornwall tried a horizontal satellite launch earlier in January.

The rocket left the wing of Virgin Orbit’s 747 jet but it failed to deliver its payload to orbit because of an “anomaly” in the second stage.

Scott Hammond, director of operations at SaxaVord, acknowledged that there was often uncertainty around timetables for private space launches.

But Mr Hammond said a recent agreement with a German company, Rocket Factory Augsburg, would see them begin testing their engines in the summer before a launch later in the year.

“Probably in July, we’re going to start full-stage testing. That will be the full, first stage, nine engines all firing for about three minutes," he said.

“So that’ll be really, really impressive. I expect about four months or so of that depending on success.

“And then we’re looking with Rocket Factory to launch towards the end of the year, for the orbital launch.”

Mr Hammond said he expected many spectators for the first launch.

“It’s incredible how this industry excites people,” he said.

Other space companies have indicated that they will use SaxaVord as a base for satellite launches or engine testing.

Another German company, HyImpulse Technologies, is expected to launch a suborbital rocket in August this year, Mr Hammond said.

Meanwhile, US company ABL has been contracted to carry out the launch of the UK’s Pathfinder mission, using another launching pad at the Scottish spaceport.

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On the northerly tip of Unst on land that used to be part of an RAF base, the site is well positioned for launches to polar orbit.

SaxaVord is not the only site in Scotland aiming to host orbital rocket launches. Space Hub Sutherland is building its own complex on the A’Mhoine Peninsula.

Mr Hammond was critical of development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s involvement in the Sutherland site, saying it was unfair “state aid” to a competitor.

HIE has provided funding for the spaceport and leases it out to a private operator.

“State aid should only be in if there’s market failure. There is no market failure because we’re a private spaceport," Mr Hammond said.

“Don’t put public money where it’s not needed."

A spokesman for HIE said: “As the region’s economic development agency, HIE recognises the potential of the space sector to create jobs and growth across the Highlands and Islands.

“We are in regular contact with SaxaVord Spaceport and will always respond if and when issues are raised or information is requested.”

Updated: January 23, 2023, 12:01 AM