We have lift-off for record rocket bid

FOR Cape Canaveral read Cape Wrath.

A group of Scottish amateur rocketeers are planning to create a high-altitude launch pad in a remote part of Sutherland to compete with the best sites in the world.

Previously, because of site restrictions, experimental rocket launches in the UK were limited to 24,500 feet, but the new location will allow enthusiasts to fire their craft up to 80,000 feet into the atmosphere.

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Final negotiations on the site, which has not been disclosed, are ongoing, but it is expected to be up and running by May next year.

If all goes to plan, it will carry on an honourable tradition of amateur rocketeering that dates back to the start of the Paisley Rocketeers Association (PRS) in 1935. Although rocketeers are mainly enthusiasts interested in exploring how high their home-made devices can travel, they have been credited with some of the advances that made space flight possible.

Plans for the new site have been revealed on the eve of International Rocket Week (IRW), a gathering of 60 rocketeers on Fairlie Moor in Ayrshire, which starts tomorrow.

Leading the Sutherland project is Rick Newlands, who said that the problem had been finding a site sufficiently remote to be able to carry out such sky-scraping launches.

“The United Kingdom Rocketry Association [UKRA] safety guidelines say that you can only launch rockets as high, as the site is wide,” said Newlands, a member of the PRA and a professional aerospace consultant. “So, with a bit of effort, we managed to find a site remote enough to go 80,000ft.

“Hopefully, this new launch site will be the best in Europe.”

The new site will allow rockets to be launched to more than twice the average cruising height of a typical passenger jet at 30,000 feet, just under six miles above the Earth’s surface. The most powerful military jets cannot climb much above 100,000 feet, which would be just under 19 miles altitude.

John Bonsor, organiser of the UK’s oldest annual rocket event, International Rocket Week (IRW), said that such a site was necessary to open Scotland up as a serious international amateur rocket location.

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“To fly seriously experimental rockets to high altitudes, UK rocketeers who are at that level have had to go to the US, which is very expensive.

“We hope to provide the opportunity for UK and international experimental rocketeers to come to Scotland. We’re going to try and sell the event to US rocketeers as a chance to do some serious rocketry of the kind they are familiar with in America, but also have a chance for a holiday in bonnie Scotland.”

In addition to driving down costs, the Scottish site will also trump the US launch pads because of the country’s mild climate, which means the volatile fuels used to launch the rockets will be more stable and less likely to misfire. UK rocketeers have been known to travel out to launch sites at the Black Rock desert in Nevada, only to have their craft explode at take off because of the high temperatures.

Martyn Turner, the UKRA membership secretary, welcomed the plans. “I think it will offer a tremendous opportunity for some of our membership. Currently, particularly in the south of England, they are limited to launch heights of just 6,000ft to 7,000ft, so the type of altitudes Rick is talking about will be inspiring to our members. Some of them will start stretching what they can do with their rockets.”

The highest rocket fired in Scotland reached 15,852 feet at the International Rocket Week two years ago.

Now in its 26th year, the IRW has its roots in the earliest days of rocketeering, with links going back to the Paisley Rocketeers Society. It is claimed that PRS were pivotal in the development of space travel, testing out some of the fundamental requirements for successful entry into space.

Bonsor explained: “As far as we know, on 31 December, 1937, in St James’ Park, the Paisley Rocketeers Society were the first to launch a three-stage rocket anywhere in the world. All three stages worked, though they didn’t recover the third one as it flew too far.

“It was a demonstration of the principal of multi-stage rocketry, which was understood to be essential piece of technology in getting into space.”

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However, following the 1969 moon landings by the United States, the Home Office caught wind of the fact that the PRS were carrying out solid fuel rocket launches and were banned from carrying out any more tests. The ban remained in place until the mid-1980s.

Bonsor said that the new site has the potential to launching an amateur rocket closer to true orbit.

“I’m hoping to gently encourage people to marry together the separate strands of research we’ve all been working on,” he said. “Now we’ve finally got a launch site in the UK we can seriously bring them together and test them.”