First orbital rocket launch from Scotland could blast off in October

The UK’s first orbital rocket launch could blast off from the Shetland islands in October or November this year, spaceport bosses have said.

SaxaVord spaceport, on the northern tip of the Shetland Islands, is preparing to host the first vertical launch of satellites from UK soil.

It comes after Spaceport Cornwall attempted a horizontal satellite launch earlier in January.

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The rocket left the wing of Virgin Orbit’s 747 jet but it failed to deliver its payload to orbit due to an “anomaly” in the second stage.

Computer generated image (CGI) issued by SaxaVord UK spaceport of a rocket taking off from Lamba Ness in Unst. The UK's first orbital rocket launch could blast off from the Shetland islands in October or November this year, spaceport bosses have said. SaxaVord spaceport, on the northern tip of the Shetland Islands, is preparing to host the first vertical launch of satellites from UK soil.

Scott Hammond, director of operations at SaxaVord spaceport, acknowledged there is often uncertainty around timetables for private space launches.

However, he said a recent agreement with a German company, Rocket Factory Augsburg, would see them begin testing their engines in the summer ahead of a launch later in the year.

He told the Press Association: “Probably in July, we’re going to start full stage testing. That will be the full, first stage, nine engines all firing for about three minutes.

“So that’ll be really, really impressive. I expect about four months or so of that depending on success.

“And then we’re looking with Rocket Factory to launch towards the end of the year, for the orbital launch.”

He expects a lot of spectators for the first launch, saying: “It’s incredible how this industry excites people.”

Other space companies have indicated they will use SaxaVord as a base for satellite launches or engine testing.

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Another German company, HyImpulse Technologies, is expected to launch a suborbital rocket in August this year, Mr Hammond said.

Meanwhile, US company ABL have been contracted to carry out the launch of the UK’s Pathfinder mission, using another launch pad at the spaceport.

Located on the northerly tip of Unst on land which used to be part of an RAF base, the site is well positioned for launches to polar orbit and sun-sun-synchronous orbits.

However, SaxaVord is not the only site in Scotland aiming to host orbital rocket launches, Space Hub Sutherland is building its own facilities on the A’Mhoine peninsula.

Mr Hammond was critical of development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s (HIE) involvement in the Sutherland site, saying it was unfair “state aid” to a competitor.

HIE have provided funding for the spaceport and leases it out to a private operator.

Mr Hammond said: “State aid should only be in if there’s market failure, there is no market failure because we’re a private spaceport.”

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He added: “Don’t put public money where it’s not needed.”

A spokesman for Highlands and Islands Enterprise said: “As the region’s economic development agency, HIE recognises the potential of the space sector to create jobs and growth across the Highlands and Islands.

“We are in regular contact with SaxaVord Spaceport and will always respond if and when issues are raised or information is requested.”

Earlier this month an attempt from Virgin Orbit to launch a rocket into orbit from UK soil ended in failure after taking off from Cornwall, with plane flying to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean with an “anomaly” with the system meaning the rocket carrying a number of satellites with a variety of civil and defence applications – failed to orbit.