Space Commerce

Ground Broken at First UK Vertical Launch Spaceport

By James Careless
May 8, 2023
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Ground Broken at First UK Vertical Launch Spaceport
Nighttime view of Orbex Prime rocket at Kinless test stand.
Image credit: Orbex

Orbex, a Scottish rocket manufacturer and orbital launch services company, has started building Sutherland Spaceport (formerly known as Space Hub Sutherland) on Scotland’s North Coast. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on May 5, 2023, on the 10-acre launch site within the community-owned Melness Crofters Estate. Orbex is sub-leasing the site for 50 years from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the economic and community development agency for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

According to Orbex, the Sutherland Spaceport will be the first vertical launch spaceport built on the UK mainland. It will be Orbex’s “home” spaceport, according to a company press release. Orbex plans to use its 62-foot (19-meter)-long two-stage Prime rocket to transport small satellites weighing up to 397 pounds (180 kg) into Low Earth Orbit up to 12 times a year. The six rocket engines in Prime’s first stage will take its payload to an altitude of around 50 miles (80 km), and then Prime’s single-engine second stage will complete the journey to low-Earth orbit LEO.

“With the construction of Sutherland Spaceport underway, this is an important piece of the puzzle that will make the UK a modern space nation,” Kristian von Bengtson, Orbex’s Chief Development Officer and Interim CEO, said in the press release. “Just as importantly, we’re hopefully also setting the tone for how business can be a force for good, creating jobs and opportunities while minimizing the impact upon the environment.” The company projects that this commercial spaceport will support about 250 new employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands over the coming years, including 40 jobs in Sutherland and Caithness.

The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by several officials and stakeholders. They included Richard Lochhead, Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade for the Scottish Government, Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, David Oxley, Director of Strategic Projects with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and Dorothy Pritchard, Chair of Melness Crofters Estate, among others.

From left to right: Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade; Kristian von Bengtson, Orbex’s Chief Development Officer & Interim CEO; Dorothy Pritchard, Chair of Melness Crofters’ Estate; Bart Markus, Orbex’s Chairman; Ian Annett, UK Space Agency’s Deputy CEO; David Oxley, Highlands & Islands Enterprise’s Director of Strategic Projects. Image credit: Orbex.

The initiative was applauded by Adam Trumpour. He is the founder and President of Launch Canada, an organization that supports grassroots experimental rocketry in Canada. “It’s great to see they’re moving ahead with the spaceport,” Trumpour told SpaceRef. “It looks like it’s comparable in terms of latitude to the old Churchill rocket range in northern Manitoba, so [it’s] a decent spot for polar orbits.”

In a bid to reduce air pollution, Orbex’s Prime rocket is being powered by a renewable biofuel known as Futuria Liquid Gas, supplied by Calor UK. In the company’s news release, Orbex said that “A study by the University of Exeter showed that a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket will produce 96 percent lower carbon emissions than comparable space launch systems using fossil fuels. Prime is also a reusable rocket which has been engineered to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit.”

In the same vein, Orbex said that Sutherland Spaceport is intended to become the world’s first carbon-neutral spaceport, both in its construction and its operation. A case in point: Peat lifted during the construction will be reused to repair large areas of nearby peatland that have been degraded over centuries of extraction.

Asked about Orbex’s environmental claims, Trumpour observed, “I do tend to be a little bit cautious in approaching claims like ‘carbon neutral,’ since they are making a lot of big claims that tend to be highly dependent on how you define and assess carbon-neutrality, what exactly your basis for comparison is, and how much of the lifecycle of the project you consider.”

“It does sound like a lot of their savings are coming from the use of biofuels, and the purchasing of carbon offsets, rather than from the actual emissions from the vehicle itself, though the fact that it sounds like their engines are very low in their soot emissions at high altitude is certainly a good thing,” Trumpour added.

One key point Orbex’s news release failed to mention: The date when Sutherland Spaceport is expected to start operations. This has yet to be announced, a spokesperson told SpaceRef

James Careless

James Careless is an award-winning satellite communications writer. He has covered the industry since the 1990s.