Orbex, one of two launch firms that plan to use of the spaceport when completed, said publication of the first scoping documents for the project was a significant moment in its development.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is currently drafting plans for Space Hub Sutherland, which is expected to host vertical launches of small satellites from the A’Mhoine peninsula, near Tongue, from the early 2020s.
The development is viewed as a key component of Scotland’s growing space sector. HIE claim 40 high quality jobs would be created locally, part of a total of more than 400 across the wider Highlands and Islands. Orbex has already opened a new manufacturing facility in Forres.
But the chosen launch site has faced opposition as it lies next to the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation, and the Ben Hutig Site of Special Scientific Interest.
HIE said that understanding the environmental impacts of satellite launches, as well as the economic benefits, would be crucial in determining the outcome of a future planning application to the Highland Council.
The application is currently being prepared by HIE and will be accompanied by an extensive round of public consultation.
As a first step towards determining environmental impacts, HIE now seeking agreement on the scope of environmental issues that will need to be examined.
Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex, said: “It is very positive to see the first scoping documents for the launch site at Sutherland Spacehub, representing the work of dozens of people and numerous industry and environmental experts over the past years to examine the challenge of taking Britain back in to space.
"This document is a first - giant - step towards a formal planning application. It’s a very detailed and careful alignment between the project and planning stakeholders on what aspects might have environmental or other impacts. However, it is very important to note that there is still a lot of design work and refinement ongoing to finalize requirements to ensure minimal impact.
"Those that are unfamiliar with planning procedures may not be familiar with the rigour of the environmental impact assessment required, and which has been ongoing at Sutherland since 2017. It's important that this understanding is based on facts rather than speculation or misinformation. This is a multi-year process involving dedicated studies from dozens of industry and agency experts, as well as engagement with multiple stakeholders and authorities.
"As an example, a two-year study detailing the local bird populations at the A’Mhoine site is now nearing completion. It's worth noting that any launch site of this nature - including those in other regions of Scotland near sensitive areas of natural heritage - will face similar requirements to present multi-year studies to Scottish National Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, among other stakeholders.
"The economic impact of the spaceport in the Highlands and Islands region is expected to deliver around 400 jobs in various activities, and around 40 locally at the spaceport, including roles in administration, finance, licencing, insurance, maintenance, fuelling, engineering, communications, public relations, housekeeping, security and community relations.
"For our part, Orbex is committed to operating the A’Mhoine site in a compatible and "green" manner, and will be using a site-compatible small launch vehicle with an ultra-low carbon bio-propane fuel. We are already investing strongly in the Highlands region at Forres, and we will be making some more announcements about developments at other locations in due course.”