Why this Remote Scottish Landscape is Set to Host Britain's First Spaceport

This Sutherland site may be integral to the future of Britain's forays into space. But conservationists fear the cost may be too great.

By Dominic Bliss
Published 16 Jul 2019, 11:49 BST
An artist's rendering of how the new spaceport and a launch may look, facing south on ...
An artist's rendering of how the new spaceport and a launch may look, facing south on the Mellness Estate, Sutherland. The project has divided locals, with some concerned for the landscape impact and others keen on the economic boost to the area such a scheme may bring.
Photograph by Orbex

Satellites could soon be launching into space from the Scottish Highlands. Space Hub Sutherland, a spaceport planned for a peninsula jutting out from the north coast of Scotland, called A’ Mhoine, has already received £17.3 million in funding. If planning permission is granted, construction will start next year on a launchpad, several buildings and access roads, with the maiden launch expected in “the early 2020s”. 

The UK’s first ever spaceport already has the backing of the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and the outgoing prime minister. However some local residents and environmentalists oppose it vehemently, pointing out the fragility of the nearby peatland bog, and suggesting it might eventually be used for military purposes.

Satellites are big business: especially the small commercial satellites which would be launched by rocket from Sutherland. Telecommunications, internet, scientific research and earth observation all require thousands of satellites in near-earth orbit. They tend to weigh less than 500kgs, varying “in size from that of a Rubik’s Cube to a washing machine”, according to the UKSA, the government agency in charge of civil space programs.

The agency wants the UK to become a world-leader in this fledgling industry. The nation already enjoys a robust reputation in the manufacture of small satellites, but none have yet been launched from British soil.

According to the UKSA, the far north of Scotland is logistically ideal for the job. Not only is it well removed from busy commercial flightpaths but, in case of accidents, it affords lots of open water (rather than, God forbid, population centres) for faulty rockets to crash into. A new Orbex operational facility was recently opened in the town of Forres, west of Inverness, from which any future launches would be monitored. 

Once launched, Sutherland satellites will enter two types of orbit. The first is a polar orbit, rotating the planet via the two poles. “There will be lots of small satellites going round the Earth frequently,” explains Jacob Geer, head of national spaceflight policy at the UKSA. “They might measure water vapour or carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; or monitor polar ice coverage, ocean salinity, rivers, forestation, urban development.”

Stage 2 of the Orbex Prime rocket was unveiled earlier this year. Its makers claim the craft's 3D-printed engine and light weight make it more stable, lighter and more efficient than other 'small launcher' rockets.
Photograph by Orbex

The second type of orbit is what’s known as sun-synchronous. Since the Earth is naturally tilted by around seven degrees on its axis, this flight path is slightly offset from the polar orbit so that satellites pass over the same part of the planet at the same time every day, allowing them to capture images similarly illuminated by the sun. This ensures accurate comparisons of the Earth’s topography.

Two manufacturers, Orbex and Lockheed Martin, are currently building satellites destined for the new spaceport. Chris Larmour is CEO and one of the founders of Orbex. He is developing what he calls a micro-launcher – a rocket 17m tall and 1.3m in diameter which weighs about 1.5 tonnes when empty. Depending on the mass of the payload, it will enter orbits between 220kms and 1,250kms above the Earth’s surface, remaining there for between five and seven years before it burns up in the atmosphere.  

Larmour explains how he will be carrying satellites for Earth observation (“with cameras providing data on pollution, migration, ice movements, shipping, crops etc”), communications (“bringing internet to the entire planet, in a global market driven by Facebook, Amazon and Oneweb”) and scientific payloads.

The area around Kyle of Tongue is home to salt marsh and peatlands that are vulnerable to wildfires and hold many delicate ecosystems, conservationists say. The mountain of Ben Loyal (pictured) overlooks the proposed spaceport site on the A' Mhoine peninsula.
Photograph by Nature Picture Library / Alamy

So far Orbex has agreed to launch satellites for Spanish technology company Elecnor Deimos, Swiss satellite communications company Astrocast, and British satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology. The latter will be aboard Orbex’s maiden launch, planned for 2021.

Larmour explains how most of the world's major spaceports cater for huge satellites, “which might need three tonnes of payload to be economical”. However, over the last decade or so, in line with communications and observation technology, the demand for small satellites has rather literally sky-rocketed, making just a few hundred kilograms a full payload.

Jacob Geer explains the difference between the very large rocket launchers, operated by the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency, and the small ones he hopes the UK will specialise in.

“In the large launchers you can fit hundreds of satellites. It’s a bit like a bus: it’s cheaper [for the individual satellite owners], but you have to wait for the launcher to fill up and, when it gets you into space, it doesn't put you exactly where you want to be. But the small launch vehicles going from the UK are more like taxis: you won't have to wait around for lots of other passengers, and they take you where you want to go, but you will have to pay a bit more for that service.”

The UKSA claims commercial small-satellite launching is potentially worth £3.8billion to the UK economy over the next decade; and that “the UK could compete in a high-value market to launch an estimated 2,000 satellites by 2030.” 

It hopes the 2018 Space Industry Act will smooth the way for new spaceflight legislation.

Not everyone is so keen to light the fuse, however. Alistair Gow is a campaigner with a local environmental group called Protect The Mhoine, which opposes the construction of the spaceport. “The peninsula is a unique, beautiful and unspoilt ecosystem that is fragile,” he says. “It behoves all Scots to protect and defend this heritage, holding it in trust for future generations as a legacy that will be their birthright.” 

Sutherland is one of the emptiest parts of Scotland – a place without a single roundabout or traffic light in an area the size of Brunei. Conservationists worry the fragile peatlands – 'flow country', as it is known – may be affected by the construction of a roads.
Photograph by Markferguson2 / Alamy Stock Photo

Gow and his supporters – a 50-strong group of local residents including ten crofters – worry about the effects of building work on the peat bog terrain of the A’ Mhoine peninsula. He admits the proposed site of the launchpad is not actually on the peat bog itself, but it is very close to it; and to a site of special scientific interest.

“Building an access road [to the launchpad] would affect the drainage. I’m certain,” he adds, pointing out how wildfires on peat bogs several miles away have destroyed huge areas of bogland in the past. “If you dry off the bog, which the access road is liable to do, it’s likely to set the fire risk higher. And, obviously, firing rockets is not going to be best news for fire risks.”

Gow is also worried the spaceport may eventually be used for military purposes, although this is something both the UKSA and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise deny.

Unmanned rocket launches aren't without incident. The Orbital ATK Antares rocket suffered a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch in October 2014 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. This was a larger launcher with a higher payload – but conservationists fear a similar incident may lead to environmental damage or wildfires in the surrounding peatland.
Photograph by NASA, Joel Kowsky, Alamy

Roy Kirk works at the Highlands and Islands Enterprise as project director on Space Hub Sutherland. He says he understands the concerns of environmentalists like Gow. There are plans to build a three-km-long access road to the launchpad from the nearby main road.

“That will cause displacement of earth,” he admits. “But there is a planning process. People have the right – and I defend that right – to put in their objections. We will be presenting an environmental statement and I believe that will absolutely reassure many people, about what we’re doing here.”

Jacob Geer stresses what a small surface area the spaceport will cover. “It’s certainly not Cape Canaveral,” he says. “I think you’d be surprised how small and lean a site like that can be.” 

Using old but still reliable technology, Russia launches a Soyuz rocket in March from its Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. These rockets are currently the only operational pathway for sending people into space.

A statement on the Highlands and Islands Enterprise website suggests “hundreds of jobs” will be created by Space Hub Sutherland. They anticipate around 40 full-time posts by 2023, and as many as 400 within a further five years’ time.

Gow doubts these figures, however, and is sceptical that rocket science is going to offer employment to local Highlanders. “The local people seem to think this is a panacea for all the unemployment ills of the area, which I doubt,” he says. “I think that any jobs that are going to be produced will be highly specialised ones.” 

Related: SpaceX's plan to send tourists to the moon, in pictures

Recent university research reinforces Gow’s doubts. A report by Mike Danskin, of Heriot-Watt University, and Geoff Whittam, of Glasgow Caledonian University, questions the suitability of a “wild land” site for the spaceport, and suggests that only menial jobs such as “housekeeping and security” will be offered to local people. 

“The damage caused by the construction and operation of the spaceport will lead to the further destruction of this Highland ‘wild land’,” the research paper states. “In turn this will reduce the opportunity for other more appropriate entrepreneurial ventures.”

Gow believes there will be further problems posed by the Crofting Commission, the public body which promotes the interest of crofter farmers in Scotland, and that the planned project could get delayed for years. All of which means it could be quite a while until the first rocket blasts off into space from Sutherland.


National Geographic is celebrating the future of spaceflight and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing with our July issue. Click below for more information on this historic edition of National Geographic. 


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