Home » Construction begins at UK’s first mainland vertical-launch spaceport

Construction begins at UK’s first mainland vertical-launch spaceport

by Liam Turner
CGI projection of Sutherland space hub

Construction has begun on the UK’s first mainland vertical-launch spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.

Formerly known as Space Hub Sutherland, the Sutherland Spaceport will be the ‘home’ spaceport of Forres-based rocket and launch services company Orbex, which will use the site to launch up to 12 orbital rockets per year for the deployment of satellites into orbit.

The groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction was attended by a number of officials and stakeholders including Richard Lochhead, minister for Small Business, Innovation, and Trade for the Scottish government; and Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency.

Sutherland Spaceport is intended to become the first carbon-neutral spaceport in the world, both in its construction and its operation.

One illustration of this is how peat lifted during the construction will be re-used to repair large areas of peatland that have degraded over centuries.

The establishment of a commercial spaceport in Sutherland is expected to support around 250 new employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands over the coming years, including 40 jobs in Sutherland and Caithness.

Economic impact assessments commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) conclude that the presence of the spaceport has the potential to generate almost £1bn in gross value added (GVA) for the Highlands and Islands economy over the next 30 years.

It was also confirmed that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) will contribute £3m to support the development of Sutherland Spaceport, completing a public investment package that also includes just over £9m from HIE and the Scottish government and £2.55m that the UK Space Agency announced in 2018.

The NDA chose to support Sutherland Spaceport following the decommissioning of the nearby Dounreay nuclear power station, as part of its remit to retire the UK’s oldest nuclear sites while supporting affected communities and the environment. 

Orbex recently signed a 50-year sub-lease with HIE, enabling the company to direct the construction and assume full operational management of the new facility on the community-owned Melness Crofters Estate.

The Prime rocket

In May 2022, Orbex revealed its Prime rocket in its final form, the first time a full orbital micro-launcher has been unveiled in Europe.

Prime is a 19-metre long, two-stage rocket designed to transport small satellites weighing up to 180kg into low Earth orbit (LEO).

The six rocket engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of around 80km.

The single engine on the second stage of the rocket will complete the journey to LEO, allowing the release of its payload of small commercial satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Orbex says it has received “widespread” interest from commercial satellite manufacturers and has already signed launch contracts with seven customers.

The company also recently concluded its Series C funding round, netting an additional £40.4m.

The Scottish government’s Richard Lochhead was among those in attendance at the groundbreaking. Credit: Orbex

Orbex Prime is powered by a renewable bio-fuel, Futuria Liquid Gas, supplied by Calor UK.

This fuel allows the rocket to reduce carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly sized rockets being developed elsewhere around the world.

A study by the University of Exeter showed that a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket will produce 96% lower carbon emissions than comparable space launch systems using fossil fuels.

Prime is also a re-usable rocket, as it has been engineered to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit.

In preparation for the first launch, Orbex says it is performing a wide variety of integration tests, as well as testing launch procedures including rollout, strongback deployment, and fuelling.

‘Force for good’

Kristian von Bengtson, chief development officer and interim CEO at Orbex, said: “Sutherland represents a new breed of spaceport, for a new breed of rocket.

“This is 21st century, agile spaceflight with sustainability at its core.

“With the construction of Sutherland Spaceport underway, this is an important piece of the puzzle that will make the UK a modern space nation.”

He added: “Just as importantly, we’re hopefully also setting the tone for how business can be a force for good, creating jobs and opportunities while minimising the impact upon the environment.”

David Oxley, director of Strategic Projects at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said: “The start of construction at Sutherland Spaceport is an important milestone for the local community and the UK space sector.

“The prospect of launch is exciting in itself but for HIE as a development agency, an even greater prize is the economic benefits that this development will bring to our region.

“We are very pleased to have developed this important and innovative project through its initial phases and greatly appreciate the contributions made by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and UK Space Agency.

“This has been a truly collaborative process and we are delighted to be working with Orbex to make Sutherland Spaceport a reality.”

Richard Lochhead, minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade at the Scottish government, said: “It is an incredibly exciting time for the space sector, with the first orbital launch from UK soil expected to take place in Scotland later this year.

“Despite our relatively small country, Scotland plays a leading role in the space sector and with the global market projected to grow to £490bn by 2030, we are well placed to become Europe’s leading space nation by 2030.

“The space sector already plays an integral part of our daily lives, allowing us to stay connected, predict weather and monitor the effects of climate change.

“Sutherland Spaceport and Orbex will play a vital role in providing benefits for our people, our economy, and our planet.”

He continued: “I was delighted to be able to visit Sutherland Spaceport for this important milestone.

“As I told Parliament last week, the Scottish space sector is opening up new frontiers.”

Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said: “This marks a major step forward for Sutherland Spaceport and demonstrates the UK’s growing launch capability and the thriving space sector in Scotland.

“The UK Space Agency has invested £8.5m in Scottish-based launch technologies through the European Space Agency’s Boost! programme, as well as £2.5m towards the spaceport and £5.5m for the development of Orbex’s Prime rocket, which has catalysed further investment from private and public partners.

“Not only will Sutherland Spaceport unlock 250 new job opportunities and boost the Highlands and Islands economy, but its carbon-neutral ambition underlines the UK’s position as a world-leader in sustainable space activities.”

Main image: CGI projection of the Sutherland Spaceport in action. Credit: Highlands and Islands Enterprise

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