SaxaVord spaceport on the Shetland Islands sounds a little like the next episode of the extremely popular BBC murder mystery series “Shetland”. However, SaxaVord Spaceport on the small island of Unst has just been given approval from the British Civil Aviation Authority to begin rocket launches in 2024. It will be the first fully-licensed spaceport in Western Europe able to launch rockets vertically into orbit. The approval permits up to 30 launches a year, taking satellites and other payloads into space.

       The site, which is the first spaceport in Scotland, has a number of launch operators around the world currently developing rockets to use this new facility.

       It is hoped that the German rocket firm HyImpulse will attempt sub-orbital launches; that is flights that do not travel high enough to reach outer space, starting in August 2024. Full orbital launches are expected to take place at SaxaVord in 2025.

       Another German company, Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), is also planning orbital launches, followed by Lockheed Martin/ABL Space Systems, with the official U.K. Government Pathfinder launch.

       Edinburgh-based Skyrora also aims to be the first UK company to launch from British soil in the coming years.

       The SaxaVord Spaceport, a former RAF radar station, is co-owned by Frank and Debbie Strang.

They bought the site 15 years ago with initial plans to turn it into an eco-tourism attraction. Mr. Strang said the awarding of the licence was “historic”.

       The space industry in the U.K. is estimated to be worth £17.5bn and supports about 48,800 jobs at 2,200 firms. That I find amazing. I must be more out of touch with my homeland than I thought!

       Cornwall Spaceport was the U.K.’s first licensed spaceport, however its rockets are launched horizontally. That sounds weird, and dangerous, until you realize that they are launched horizontally from an aircraft.

      Tim Johnson, director of space regulation at the CAA, said: “Granting SaxaVord their licence is an era-defining moment for the UK space sector. U.K. transport Secretary Mark Harper said the CAA’s announcement would boost Shetland’s economy and “put the United Kingdom at the forefront of spaceflight innovation”. Last week, the UK Space Agency announced funding of more than £6.7m to further Scotland’s spaceport ambitions.

       Scotland currently has five proposed spaceports under development. The Sutherland Spaceport, also currently under construction, has ambitions of launching 12 rockets into orbit per year. A further spaceport is planned on North Uist, with both Glasgow Prestwick and Spaceport Machrihanish hoping to join the space race and conduct horizontal orbital launches in the future.

      Lockheed Martin‘s U.K. Pathfinder satellite launch system includes technology from ABL Space Systems, a US-based company developing 27 m tall rockets capable of carrying payloads up to 1000 kg into a Sun-synchronous orbit. The UK Pathfinder Launch programme is supported by £23.5 million of UK Space Agency grants. 

      Plans for the spaceport were submitted to Shetland Islands Council by Farningham Planning in January 2021 to enable up to 30 launches per year. The proposal is for three rocket launch pads on Lamba Ness peninsula with additional infrastructure such as a satellite tracking facility, rocket hangars and integration facilities. The plans also document proposals for a Range Control Centre at the former RAF Saxa Vord complex, fuel storage facilities at Ordale Airport at Baltasound, and improvements to the launch site’s approach roads.

      However, there was a glitch in the plans. On 29 March 2021, Historic Environment Scotland (HES), a statutory body, refused consent for the development on the grounds it would destroy a scheduled monument of national significance – the Chain Home radar station at Skaw. The refusal of consent carries significant legal weight, as it is a criminal offence to carry out works to a scheduled monument without such authorisation. Due to the almost one-to-one overlap of the monument location with the proposed spaceport, this refusal led to concerns being voiced about the viability of the spaceport project. In January 2022, HES withdrew the objection, stating “We recognise the benefits that this development will bring to the community in Unst”. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

      In May 2023, spaceport CEO Frank Strang announced a new $137 million debt financing package during a U.K. Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee hearing. The source of the funding was not revealed.

      On 28 July 2023, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) granted HyImpulse permission to launch its SR75 rocket for the first time from SaxaVord between 1 December 2023 and 30 November 2024.[20] Although SaxaVord is yet to receive its spaceport licence, the CAA has confirmed that the spaceport will not need the licence to host the suborbital SR75 flight due to the 47-kilometre max altitude being targeted and the size of the rocket’s engine.

      Despite the glitches, it looks as though Scotland will soon have a very active space port. I am sure that the producers of the TV series “Shetland” will be looking closely at how they can include this development in future episodes.

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