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Countdown begins for Highlands spaceport

Words: Roger Milne
Countdown begins for Highlands spaceport / iStock-143175766

A remote peninsula in Sutherland has been chosen as the location for the UK’s first spaceport.

Plans to launch micro satellites into space from the northern Highlands of Scotland took a major step forward this week with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) announcing further funding to develop the scheme.

The funding will enable HIE to draw up detailed proposals and, subject to planning and other regulations, build a vertical launch site for a new generation of small rockets to launch micro communication and earth-observation satellites at The Moine, on the Melness Crofting Estate near Tongue in north Sutherland. 

A planning application is expected next year.

HIE has confirmed a major funding package for the project totalling £17.3 million, including £2.5 million from UK Space Agency (UKSA) and £9.8 million from HIE, which has been approved in principle by the HIE Board, subject to conditions.

Once the facility is developed it is expected that the Sutherland site could host up to six launches each year, with the first rocket possibly taking off early next decade.

As well as supporting HIE, the UKSA has also awarded research and development grant funding to two international launch companies that are its partners in the Sutherland project – Lockheed Martin and UK-based early stage spaceflight company Orbex.

Cabinet secretary for finance and the economy Derek Mackay said: “The development of a small-satellite launch facility at the Moine, Sutherland, is a significant first step towards stimulating space sector activity across the whole of Scotland and beyond.

“The significant investment, supported by HIE, and an estimated 400 jobs is a welcome boost to the local community and wider Scottish space sector which we are committed to see grow.”

Charlotte Wright, chief executive of HIE, said: “Establishing this launch site will not only deliver an exceptional local opportunity, with around 40 high-quality, skilled jobs being created in a fairly remote and rural part of Sutherland.

“Crucially, we believe it will act as a driver to stimulate further space-related investment and business activity more widely across the Highlands and Islands and other parts of Scotland. “

Margaret Davidson, leader of the Highland Council, said: “This is very exciting news for the region and offers a much-needed opportunity for new high-skilled jobs in Sutherland and Caithness. It also has the potential to deliver wider economic benefits in terms of other associated industries, education and tourism. “

In a related move, UK business secretary Greg Clark confirmed that Prestwick Airport near Glasgow remains in the running as one of three potential horizontal launch spaceport sites. The scheme, a key element of the proposed Ayrshire Growth Deal, is to receive further funding to develop its case.

Image credit | iStock