Excited talk of space tourism does not reflect what the proposed Sutherland launch site or the wider sector in Scotland is about, writes Chris McCall
Images of Cape Canaveral and the giant Saturn V launch vehicles that propelled Neil Armstrong and his Apollo colleagues to the moon are never far away when the subject of space and rocketry is discussed.
But that nostalgic 1960s vision of lunar exploration bears little resemblance to the tough commercial realities that drives the UK space sector in 2018, and the industry in Scotland in particular.
This week’s announcement the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland has been chosen for the site of the UK’s first spaceport generated much excited talk on social media and beyond about the north of Scotland suddenly becoming a hub for tourists bound for outer space.
Although a significant milestone, the funding award will be used for more practical reasons. It will help pay for, if planning permission is granted, a vertical launch pad for the kind of small-scale commercial rockets that are in huge demand to send miniaturised satellites into orbit.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has awarded £2.5m to support the project, which is led by regional development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
The funding will enable HIE to develop detailed plans to 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.
Glasgow already builds more satellites than any other city in Europe, thanks to firms such as Clyde Space - Scotland’s first micro satellite company.
The company specialises in building components for CubeSats - a type of miniaturized satellite for space research made up of multiples of cubic units no more than 1.33 kgs.
If plans for Sutherland are approved, around six launches could take place each year from the early 2020s onwards.
“From a technical perspective, this could have been done 20 years ago. But the market just wasn’t there,” Malcolm Macdonald, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Strathclyde, told The Scotsman.
“It’s a number of different factors coming together to make this the right time to be doing it. Companies are looking for smaller, dedicated rockets for their satellites. That has led to a demand, and a market, for these kinds of launch vehicles.”
US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is among the potential customers for the Sutherland spaceport, with plans to send its Electron rocket to Scotland.
UK-based engineering firm Orbex also aims to send its planned launch vehicle, Prime, into orbit from the Sutherland site. The company was this week awarded £5.5m to support the rocket’s development.
“If you build a spaceport without an operator, all you’ve got is a big empty airport with no one there to actually use it,” explained Dr Macdonald.
That’s the key question for other proposed spaceports in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK: which operators would be based there?
While A’Mhoine is the first planned spaceport to win UK Government support, that doesn’t mean it will be the last.
The team behind plans for a spaceport on the Shetland isle of Unst said it was “business as usual” this week for their project.
“Shetland’s interest started after this current grant process closed,” added Dr Macdonald. “They have always known they would not access this money. But they have continued with more than a year of development. So they must believe they can close their business case. The critical thing for them is whether there are operators wanting to engage with them.”
He continued: “If we go beyond Scotland, I think it is likely a horizontal launch site will open in the UK. Newquay appear to be edging ahead, but Prestwick still has a strong base to build on.
“The capital investment to build a spaceport and launch pad is, relatively speaking, not that significant - the key is whether people want to use it.”