An artist’s impression of an Orbex Prime launch from Sutherland Spaceport (Credit: Orbex) 

Vertical rocket launches could soon lift off from UK soil after construction started on the first mainland spaceport with that capability.

Scottish rocket firm Orbex announced the start of work on Sutherland Spaceport, formerly known as Space Hub Sutherland, today (5 May). Located on the north coast of Scotland, the facility will be the home spaceport of the rocket and launch services company, which will use the site to launch up to 12 orbital rockets per year.

Sutherland is intended to be the ‘first carbon neutral spaceport in the world’ in both construction and operation. The Orbex Prime rocket will reportedly run on renewable biofuel, while peat lifted during construction will be used to repair areas of peatland that have been degraded over centuries.

Engineering services company Jacobs, which has supported NASA on multiple space centre projects and spaceflight programmes, will build the site. It will also provide spaceport operations support, operations consultancy and engineering services, drawing on experience from complex nuclear and space-related sites.

Orbex revealed the final form of the Prime rocket in May 2022. The 19m, two-stage rocket is designed to transport small satellites weighing up to 180kg into low Earth orbit (LEO). The six rocket engines on the first stage will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of about 80km. The single engine on the second stage will complete the journey to LEO.

The Future Liquid Gas biofuel will be supplied by Calor UK.

“This fuel allows the rocket to reduce carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly sized rockets being developed elsewhere around the world,” an Orbex announcement said. “Prime is also a reusable rocket, which has been engineered to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit.”

The company has already signed launch contracts with seven customers. In preparation for the first launch, it is performing integration tests and testing launch procedures. It has hired dozens of staff at its headquarters in Forres to support the integration testing.

“Sutherland represents a new breed of spaceport, for a new breed of rocket. This is 21st century, agile spaceflight with sustainability at its core,” said Kristian von Bengtson, chief development officer and interim CEO at Orbex.

“With the construction of Sutherland Spaceport underway, this is an important piece of the puzzle that will make the UK a modern space nation. Just as importantly, we’re hopefully also setting the tone for how business can be a force for good, creating jobs and opportunities while minimising the impact upon the environment.”

The spaceport is expected to support about 250 new employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands over the coming years, including 40 jobs in Sutherland and Caithness. Economic impact assessments commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) conclude that the presence of the spaceport could generate almost £1bn in gross value added (GVA) for the Highlands and Islands economy over the next 30 years.

The HIE and Scottish government have invested over £9m in the project. The UK Space Agency provided £2.55m in 2018, while today’s announcement also included details of £3m investment from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, following the decommissioning of the nearby Dounreay nuclear power station.

The ground-breaking ceremony to mark the start of construction was attended by officials and stakeholders including Richard Lochhead, minister for innovation for the Scottish government, Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, David Oxley, director of strategic projects at HIE, and Dorothy Pritchard, chair of Melness Crofters Estate, the home of the new facility.

“It is an incredibly exciting time for the space sector, with the first orbital launch from UK soil expected to take place in Scotland later this year,” said Lochhead. “Despite our relatively small country, Scotland plays a leading role in the space sector, and with the global market projected to grow to £490bn by 2030, we are well placed to become Europe’s leading space nation by 2030.

“The space sector already plays an integral part of our daily lives, allowing us to stay connected, predict weather and monitor the effects of climate change. Sutherland Spaceport and Orbex will play a vital role in providing benefits for our people, our economy and our planet.”

Annett said:

“This marks a major step forward for Sutherland Spaceport and demonstrates the UK’s growing launch capability and the thriving space sector in Scotland.

“The UK Space Agency has invested £8.5m in Scottish-based launch technologies through the European Space Agency’s Boost! programme, as well as £2.5m towards the spaceport and £5.5m for the development of Orbex’s Prime rocket, which has catalysed further investment from private and public partners.

“Not only will Sutherland Spaceport unlock 250 new job opportunities and boost the Highlands and Islands economy, but its carbon-neutral ambition underlines the UK’s position as a world-leader in sustainable space activities.”

Source: Institute of Mechanical Engineers

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