Sutherland Space Hub gets councillors’ approval

Space Hub Sutherland
Image: Highlands and Islands Enterprise

Subject to review by the Scottish government, the establishment of a spaceport, to be known as the Sutherland Space Hub, on the Melness Crofters Estate on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, next to the A838, around six miles from Tongue, in Sutherland, has been approved by local councillors, with 118 representations being received in favour of the proposal, against 457 objections, some of which were on the grounds of health hazards and environmental impact; however, Highlands and Islands Enterprise has had a two-year environmental impact assessment study carried out, and planning conditions will mandate that construction and launch operations be carried out in such a manner as to minimise disruption to the local wildlife and environment.

HIE estimates that in four years, the spaceport will support 139 jobs across the Highlands, with over 40 at the facility itself, which is a major reason for support of the project by local community councils.

Among other planning conditions imposed by councillors is a limit of 12 launches per year, which, it is estimated, would entail 7 tonnes of metal and 5 tonnes of CFRP being jettisoned
into the sea each year.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise will contribute up to £9.8m, the UK Space Agency £2.5m, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, in an effort to replace jobs lost in the forthcoming closure of Dounreay nuclear power station, will contribute £5m.

The spaceport, designed by Norr Consultants Limited, will include a launch pad, fuel storage tanks, offices, a control centre, and antennae, with 2.5km of road, and will occupy just over 10 acres of the 740-acre Melness Crofters Estate.\

The UK-based rocket company Orbex said that this decision was “landmark” and that orbital launch from Britain was "a step closer". Orbex has signed six contracts for launch from the spaceport, and their Orbex Prime launch vehicle will be the first vertical launch rocket to launch into orbit from the facility. Chris Larmour, Chief Executive Officer of Orbex, said that “The Highland Council’s approval of the spaceport is a landmark in the history of spaceflight in Europe and will place the community around Tongue, Melness and Skerray, the Highlands Region, Scotland and the United Kingdom at the very heart of the European space launch industry… We would like to congratulate Highlands and Islands Enterprise on their leadership of this project and thank numerous local people for their active engagement and support throughout the meticulous planning process. We look forward to becoming an
integral part of the local community as we establish our own permanent team at the Space Hub… The go-ahead for the Space Hub Sutherland, combined with the steady progress of the Orbex Prime launch vehicle, are important steps towards the first truly orbital space flight from the UK. The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the regulatory framework that will govern launches, and we look forward to those regulations being laid before Parliament in the coming weeks.”

David Oxley, HIE Director of Business Growth, said that “Gaining planning approval from the council is a huge step forward for Space Hub Sutherland. The UK’s space ambitions present a
wonderful opportunity for the Highlands and Islands. 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. We are very aware of the environmental challenges presented by a project of this kind, particularly in such wild and unspoilt area as A’ Mhòine. We have been diligent in carrying out survey work to understand and mitigate all potential impacts,
including a restoration plan that will see all of the peat that is dug out during construction retained on site and used to repair areas that were degraded by past digging. Part of our ambition is to create the world’s most low-carbon space centre and the conditions applied to the planning approval will help us make that a reality. Another important aspect is the role that satellites we launch from Sutherland will play in gathering data that helps understand and address the impact of global climate change. When all these factors are put together, that makes today’s decision a good result not just for the economy, but for the environment as well.”

A spokesperson for the government of the United Kingdom said: “This is a significant milestone for Space Hub Sutherland and another step towards putting the UK on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination. 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.”

Summarised by Griffith Ingram

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