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Forres-based Orbex will be first to launch satellite from Sutherland space hub

By Garry McCartney

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An artist's impression of the Sutherland satellite launch pad.
An artist's impression of the Sutherland satellite launch pad.

A LOCAL business has been given a boost by the announcement that plans for a satellite launch site in Scotland have taken a giant leap forward.

Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee has approved plans by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to build a vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland, meaning that small commercial satellites and launch vehicles designed and manufactured in Scotland could be heading into orbit from a Highland spaceport within the next few years.

And Orbex, the Forres-based space launch company, has confirmed that 'Orbex Prime' will be the first vertical launch vehicle to fly into orbit from the site, and has already signed six launch contracts.

Orbex CEO, Chris Larmour, said: "Highland Council’s approval of the spaceport is a landmark in the history of spaceflight in Europe and will place the area at the very heart of the European space launch industry. We look forward to becoming an integral part as we establish our own permanent team at the Space Hub."

An Orbex rocket in space.
An Orbex rocket in space.

Orbex's design and development work has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic. A coaxial fuel tank is currently undergoing cryogenic testing, and the company recently signed a lease to install a new testing facility on the former RAF base at Kinloss. Orbex’s rocket engines have been progressing through performance tests while avionics and guidance systems are also being ground tested.

Several new starts have joined the Orbex team in recent weeks with more expected to join over the summer period. Orbex has also partnered with the UK Space Agency’s SPIN programme, offering long-term internships to give young engineers hands-on experience of launch vehicle design and production.

Highland Council’s decision will allow Orbex to complete detailed scoping of its own launch site installation and launch preparation team, creating full-time, permanent jobs. Recruitment is expected to start while the spaceport construction is underway.

Conceived and developed as an environmentally sustainable launch system, Orbex Prime will use renewable biofuels to deliver an ultra-low CO2 footprint. The Orbex vehicle is intended to be recoverable and re-usable, normally leaving no debris in the ocean or in orbit around the Earth.

In January, the European Space Agency awarded Orbex a contract under its Future Launchers Preparatory Program, covering further development of a near zero-mass reusability system which will allow Stage One boosters to be recovered and reused in multiple missions, further reducing the use of raw materials.

Orbex unveiling the state-of-the-art Prime rocket, with an engine which has been 3D printed at the Forres Enterprise Park.
Orbex unveiling the state-of-the-art Prime rocket, with an engine which has been 3D printed at the Forres Enterprise Park.

Director of business growth with HIE, David Oxley, also claimed the UK’s space ambitions present opportunity for the area.

He said: "A vertical launch spaceport is a key piece of the national jigsaw, along with the design and manufacture of satellites and launch vehicles, that will ensure Scotland can derive maximum economic benefits from this growing and exciting sector."

Space Hub Sutherland is proposed for area of peatland on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, around six miles from Tongue. Launch-related infrastructure will include a control centre, 2.5km of road and a launch pad.

In 2018, the board of HIE approved in principle a budget of £17.3m for the project, including contributions of £2.5m from the UK Space Agency, and £5m from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The decision reflected the potential of the spaceport to drive the national growth of the space sector, including manufacturing and supply chain jobs and training opportunities. An economic impact assessment commissioned by the agency concluded that developing the spaceport could support around 250 high quality jobs in the Highlands and Islands.

Satellites launched from the Highlands will be used for Earth observation, including gathering data to monitor and address the effects of climate change around the world. The first launch could be as early as 2022. Once the spaceport is fully operational, it could host up to 12 launches a year.

A UK government spokesperson said: "Scotland is already a global hub for satellite manufacturing and the addition of commercial launch from the Highlands will bring new jobs and economic growth to local communities, while supporting businesses and supply chains across the whole of the UK. The UK government is committed to minimising the environmental impact of spaceflight activities and developing a new National Space Strategy which recognises the unique contribution of satellite technology to our understanding of global issues like climate change and providing essential environmental monitoring and data services."

The committee’s decision has been referred to Scottish Government ministers for review.

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