UK Selects Scottish Spaceport Site

Scotland spaceport art
An illustration of the planned spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland, that will be used for vertically launched rockets. (Image credit: Perfect Circle PV)

LONDON — After years of study and consideration, the British government announced July 15 that it will start development of a new spaceport in northern Scotland, while an English airport signed a deal that could also lead to launches from its facility.

In a statement issued in advance of the start of the Farnborough International Airshow, the UK Space Agency said it will provide initial funding of 2.5 million pounds ($3.3 million) to begin development of a vertical launch site in Sutherland, on the Atlantic coast in northern Scotland.

In its announcement, the agency said it selected the site "because Scotland is the best place in the UK to reach highly sought-after satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets." The site would allow launches to the north, supporting spacecraft operating in sun-synchronous or other highly inclined orbits. [Satellite Quiz: How Well Do You Know What's Orbiting Earth]

The announcement gave few details about the facility or indicated what company, or companies, would use it, but noted launches would begin there in the early 2020s. More information is expected to be announced July 16 at the air show.

"As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy," said Business Secretary Greg Clark in a statement. "The UK's thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the UK in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites."

"The decision to support the UK's first spaceport in Sutherland is tremendous news for our region and for Scotland as a whole," said Charlotte Wright, chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the recipient of the spaceport funding. "The international space sector is growing, and we want to ensure the region is ready to reap the economic benefits that will be generated from this fantastic opportunity."

Peter Platzer, chief executive of Spire Global, welcomed the announcement as well. His company builds its constellation ofcubesats that provide weather and tracking services in Glasgow. "In Spire, Scotland already sports Europe's most advanced and prolific satellite-manufacturing capability, and with a spaceport right next door, enabling clockwork-like launches, we can finally get our space sector supply chain to be truly integrated," he said in the statement.

The British government had for years been studying designating one or more sites as spaceports. The focus of that effort had been on existing airports that could support flights of suborbital vehicles or air-launch systems. Only more recently has there been open consideration of new vertical launch sites, such as Sutherland as well as in the Shetland Islands.

The UK Space Agency said that, in addition to the funding for the Sutherland launch site, it will offer 2 million pounds to support development of horizontal launch sites "subject to business case."

One of those potential launch sites is Cornwall Airport Newquay in southwestern England. Officials there announced late July 15 that they are entering into a partnership with Virgin Orbit that could allow that company's air-launched LauncherOne system to operate from the airport, dubbed Spaceport Cornwall. 

That partnering agreement, to be signed at Farnborough July 16, would allow LauncherOne missions to fly from Spaceport Cornwall by 2021. A detailed plan to support such launches from the spaceport, including licensing of the airport as a spaceport, will be developed after the agreement is signed. [Gallery: Virgin's LauncherOne Rocket for Satellite Missions]

"The announcement of a strategic partnership between Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Spaceport is great news for the region and the UK's ambitions for regular, reliable and responsible access to space," said UK Science Minister Sam Gyimah in a statement from Spaceport Cornwall. "This partnership could see Virgin Orbit's innovative horizontal launch technology helping the UK's small-satellite industry access space from the convenience of a spaceport in Cornwall."

It wasn't clear from the announcement how committed Virgin Orbit is to launching from the United Kingdom. Virgin plans to begin launch operations as soon as later this summer from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and is in discussions about additional launch sites on the US East Coast and in the Pacific. On July 6, Virgin Orbit announced a memorandum of understanding with the Italian company Sitael that could lead to LauncherOne missions from Taranto-Grottaglie Airport in southern Italy, although the agreement didn't set a timetable for such missions.

"The Cornwall partnership allows us to grasp important market share, gain instant global launch market credibility and, with the technology already being tested in the U.S., further lower our risk," said Patrick McCall, chairman of the board of Virgin Orbit, said in the Cornwall statement.

"These grants will help kickstart an exciting new era for the UK space industry, and this is only the beginning of our LaunchUK campaign," said space agency chief executive Graham Turnock. "We are committed to supporting a commercial market for access to space in the UK, and we will continue to engage with any company who seeks to operate here."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.