Europe’s go-to spaceport is located in Kourou, French Guiana, but not for long. In July, a peninsular on Scotland’s north coast was chosen as the site of the UK’s first spaceport.
Sutherland has been chosen and the site could be ready for launch in the early 2020s, after pipping Unst, Shetland, and North Uist to the post. The decision underpins the government’s commitment to the industry, which already generates £13.7 billion annually.
Scotland’s first spaceport won’t be sending people into space, but it will be used to launch vertical rockets and satellites, paving the way for human spaceflights in the years to come.
They may not be as awe-inspiring as manned space missions, but legions of small satellites are built to carry out vital work including Earth observation, solar study, weather forecasting and reconnaissance.
There is a global shortage of small satellite launches, driven by rapid development in small satellite capability and the relatively low cost of producing them, and the UK has identified this as an opportunity. Currently, small satellites must ‘piggyback’ off larger missions, or must wait for a bulk launch of up to a hundred or more.
The UK Space Agency has predicted the industry could access £3.8 billion of the global market over the next decade, possibly more if the market in satellites continues to grow at its current rate.
The agency is confident the UK is ready to compete in the space market and launch an estimated 2,000 satellites by 2020 and create 400 local jobs in the process. Employment opportunities are also Scotland-wide – Glasgow is fast emerging as a global centre for satellite technology and has created 70 satellites already, second only to California. Edinburgh too, has an international reputation for Earth observation monitoring.
The space industry is a key part of the government’s industrial strategy, and an initial £2.5 million in funding will go to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to develop the UK’s first vertical launch site. The UK Space Agency has also made a £2 million fund available to boost development.
As Scotland prepares to launch into the multi-billion dollar industry of space launches, we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground and get to grips with the complexities of space law. It’s an exciting phase for Scotland and the UK, but it also presents a number of legislative challenges as we move into relatively unchartered territory.
The UK is already part of a number of international conventions on space law, such as the UK Outer Space Treaty, which requires countries to authorise and supervise private space activities, but domestic law implementing these rules only licenses UK companies for overseas launch.
A regulatory framework to enable the licensing, insurance and investment is required for safe and sustainable UK launches. The Space Industry Act 2018 is the first regulatory step towards licensing home launches, and sets out a framework of regulatory requirements. Detailed discussions will be required to assess various aspects relating to space activity, such as safety and training requirements, security regulations, the enactment of spaceport byelaws and insurance.
There’s much to consider and the government intends to consult on further measures in 2019, but this remains an opportunity for our space policy to be one of the most progressive in Europe.
As the country takes its first small step in choosing a spaceport, the UK has in fact taken one giant leap in the right direction.
Lauren Payne is managing associate for Addleshaw Goddard’s Infrastructure, Projects and Energy team, specialising in transport