We have previously written about two of the better-known UK spaceports: Prestwick and Sutherland. But, they are not the only Scottish spaceports currently in development.
The Shetland Space Centre (SSC) is a third proposed satellite launch site, and its addition to the growing wealth of British launch sites highlights the country’s booming space industry.
The clue is in the name. The Shetland Space Centre is a satellite launch site (unsurprisingly) located on the Shetland Islands. Specifically, its proposed location is on Unst, the most northerly island, near RAF Saxa Vord, a radar station.
Much like Sutherland and Prestwick, its location is ideal because of its northerly latitude. It has a clear launch trajectory for putting satellites into polar and Sun-synchronous Low Earth Orbit. Furthermore, it is a suitable location for a ground station that can link to existing satellites currently in orbit.
However, the main thing it lacks compared to the mainland sites is accessibility. Unst is roughly 240 kilometres from John O’ Groats, the most northerly point of mainland Scotland. While this is favourable for non-disruptive launches, it does pose potential difficulty getting satellites and launch equipment to the site.
The development has been in talks for several years now, but viability and partnerships only took off in the last two years. SSC secured partnerships with German rocket maker HyImpulse in 2021 and Lockheed Martin in October 2020 after pulling out of Sutherland Spaceport.
Lockheed Martin plans to launch its UK Pathfinder satellite from the site using ABL Space Systems’ rockets. Under current proposals, these launches will be part of the 30 suggested in the 2021 planning permission.
The plans state the site will have three launch pads (two more than Sutherland), located on the Lamba Ness peninsula. The location will also house additional infrastructure, including a satellite tracking facility, hangars, and integration facilities. The site’s range control centre will be at RAF Saxa Vord, and fuel storage will be at Unst Airport in Baltasound.
However, after submission in January 2021, Historic Environment Scotland contested the plans, arguing they will cause irreparable damage to Saxa Vord. It is a WW2 radar station that was scheduled as a monument of national importance. This is despite it receiving no upkeep or preservation in the last five decades.
Construction of SSC facilities at the site would mean removing more than 200 features, including buildings and gun emplacements. The proposed site for SSC buildings almost entirely overlaps with the historic site, and building there without permission would be illegal.
So, as it stands, there is concern about the viability of the Shetland Space Centre. Site planners will contest Historic Environment Scotland’s dispute, and the battle will likely draw significant public and political attention.
Considering the potential benefits another satellite launch site will bring to the local and national economy, it is unlikely that the dispute will remain in place. Granted, Saxa Vord is a historic site, but a satellite launch centre would probably draw greater crowds to the area. But, the dispute has already cast doubt on SSC’s future, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.