Space Rockets Prepare for Launch in Scotland

By  //  September 28, 2020

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Britain is looking toward the stars as it announces the beginning of a public consultation phase, a major milestone on the journey toward a first-ever orbital space launch from native soil, a vision that draws closer every day.

Although there are few issues to be considered and carefully solved before the journey even starts.

Moving Up

With the public consultation on the regulations that will form and support the Space Industry Act 2018 now open as of July 29th, 2019, the discussion is presumed to primarily revolve around best practices regarding the environment, as well as making these regulations as business-friendly as possible, which is where contentions arise.

As with most major decisions at industrial levels such as orbital rocket launches, there are guaranteed trade-offs that will come with the myriad of economic incentives, international and public relations, and environmental concerns.

Spaceports are now set to become a part of the British economy, as the U.K. looks to not only launch its first-ever orbital rocket into space but also become the first in Europe to do so. Science Minister Amanda noting that in order to be a successful commercial spaceflight nation, regulations must be business-friendly, further adding:

“Satellite launches will create new jobs right across the UK and attract significant investment into our rapidly growing space sector. This consultation brings these exciting opportunities a big step closer.”

That being the case, the introduction of these launch sites to rural areas in England, Scotland, and Wales has been an uphill battle which may continue to be so for many years to come. The scope of the effort is huge, with a total of almost £40 million having been invested in a few agencies, both domestic and international.

This includes American aerospace group Lockheed Martin, as well as Scotland-headquartered re-usable rocket developer Orbex, who, as well as Scottish competitor Skyrora, who are both vying to be the first in history to conduct a vertical orbital rocket launch from Sutherland spaceport.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for the U.K., and launches may arrive as soon as the first half of this decade, but with many hurdles ahead, striking the balance between environmentally friendly and economically sustainable is a tricky one at that.

Breathing Space

In 2018, a remote area of Scotland in the county of Sutherland was selected as the best spot in the U.K. to build a spaceport capable of launching vertical rockets into space. Having received a grant of £2.5 million from the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA), the sprouts of Britain’s space ambitions began to take root.

Though questions regarding the impact of a spaceport situated at one of the most northern regions of Scotland were also beginning to gain traction.

At the time of the Sutherland spaceport announcement, the economic development agency which oversaw that area, the Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE), noted that it had raised almost £18 million to further develop the spaceport with further funds coming other sources such as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. As part of the final plans, HIE would put forth its strategy to create 40 jobs directly, as well as up to 400 other jobs in the broader economy.

Approaching this phase, the chair of the Sutherland county committee, Linda Munro,  acknowledged the polarity of supporters and those with concerns from the local township, an isolated township of approximately 200 people who voiced their worries of disruption to peace, noise pollution and environmental ramifications amongst others.

According to Munro, the success of the project rested upon how well the HIE and Highlands council conducted consultations with residents, as well as the delivery of jobs created by the likes of Skyrora, Orbex, and other players.

Fast forward to the present day, and seemingly the Scottish government is ready to go full steam ahead with the development of the Sutherland spaceport, with a new HIE chair and the most recent success of the HIE receiving approval from the Scottish Government who also declared there would be no need for a public inquiry.

The news broke on August 4th, 2020, noting that this comes as quite a blow to the opposition efforts of campaigners, including local landowner and billionaire Anders Povlsen who had described the spaceport as “deeply damaging”. Reportedly, his company that owns estates near the site called for an inquiry, also asking for the government to consider two other planned rocket sites in Scotland as well as a threat of legal action.

With this news, changes to statements made in 2018 have also arrived, with a Scottish government spokesperson maintaining the promise of 40 on-site jobs, but halving the broader economy job figure that was projected to create around 400 jobs elsewhere in sectors such as manufacturing and supply chain. The Scottish government further detailed that it expects up to 12 launches a year to be made from Sutherland spaceport, with the potential of a first launch as early as late 2022.

The go-ahead to build the spaceport also comes at the end of an environmental impact assessment conducted by environmental consultancy, Ramboll, who considered a great deal of issues that affect both land and marine settings. Conclusively, Ramboll has given the project the green light and will be supporting efforts to maintain good standards throughout the project.

A spokesman of the Scottish government said:

“Scottish ministers have considered the notified spaceport proposal at Tongue and concluded there are no issues requiring a decision to be taken at a national level.”

Adding:

“It is considered that Highland Council have taken all relevant matters into account in their deliberations including the challenges in terms of access, landscape and visual impact and environmental impacts where there are residual significant effects.”

Sustainability

The U.K. has a long history of protecting its incredible countrysides, as well as pioneering global attitudes being the first major economy in the world to pass laws that require the nation to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050, a goal it is seemingly leaping bounds towards.

As of June 2019, the U.K. signed this legislation, and at the time, the government reported that the nation had reduced emissions by as much as 42%, all the while reporting an economic growth of 72% as well as highlighting the ‘clean growth’ strategy that sits at the core of its Industrial Strategy. The June 2019 announcement also notes that this ambition could create an additional 2 million “green-collar jobs”, generating some £170 billion a year by 2030.

Whilst it may seem as though the constructions of spaceports in the Scottish highlands is quite a contradiction to the aims of carbon neutrality in the U.K., it’s worth remembering that we live in an era that is striving, nonetheless, for eco-friendly practices across all industries and sectors.

In order to build such facilities, great masses of new roads and other infrastructures will indeed take a toll on the environment. Though with an estimated five tonnes of carbon fibre reinforced plastics and several tonnes of metals anticipated to land in the sea each year, it is evident that the greater challenge to this industry rests with the rockets themselves.

That said, these figures may not take into account the firms making the rockets themselves; take Orbex for example, one of the main contenders for launching at Sutherland spaceport. As mentioned earlier, the U.K.-headquartered firm, that also has offices in Denmark and connection with scandalous inventor Peter Madsen, is building  rockets.

More specifically, the startup which was founded in 2015, has been developing what it describes as an “environmentally sustainable launch system”, using renewable biofuels as well ‘reflight’, a low-mass system that enables Stage One boosters from rockets to be recovered and reused for multiple missions.

Time Will Tell

In recent months, competition in the lucrative satellites market has begun to snowball into actual change, including one massive event. For the first time in half a century, an orbital rocket was tested on British soil, namely the Skylark Nano from Skyrora is a 6.5ft rocket, the smallest of the Skyrora fleet.

The test is a historical landmark for the industry, and the country overall, though now that the stage has been set in the hills of Scotland, time will soon tell as to whether or not Sutherland spaceport will be as damaging, or as beneficial, as many have projected.

A January 2020 study from the UKSA on the nature of investment, work, and financial returns on space science found that £523 million of UKSA funding into the European Space Agency’s Space Scientific Programme drew in £1.4 billion for the U.K between 2000 and 2018., with an additional £1.1 billion from “partially attributed and forecast benefits.”

Considering the projected rise of employment in this sector with the development of several spaceports around the U.K., this figure could potentially double in the next five years and grow exponentially from there.

The study took into account the overall size of the space industry in 2016/2017, finding that the total income had been £14.8 billion with 41,9000 people employed in this sector. In that same period, space-related exports contributed £5.5 billion to the U.K, and this is some years before Scotland became the chosen site for a first-ever vertical launch.

Whether it is 6, 10 or 20 launches from the Sutherland Spaceport, it is looking likely to take quite some time before either the UK Space Agency or the consortium’s investors see any return on their investments.

With initial expenditure looking highly likely to exceed the £100m mark and potentially anywhere between £25m and £100m on additional infrastructure including roads, bridges & utility services, at a conservative estimate of £1m revenue per launch, a twelve-year period of operation would generate £120m in gross revenue and with the extremely high costs of launching rockets this may only generate £12m in profit. This would then give you a ‘break even’ point around 100 years down the line.

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