THERE are hopes that Unst could become the first launch base for small satellites in the UK – potentially giving Shetland a huge employment boost in the process and injecting tens of millions of pounds a year into the local economy.
Saxa Vord resort owner Frank Strang created the company Shetland Space Centre Ltd a number of weeks ago after the UK Space Agency picked out the area as the preferred site for the country’s first vertical satellite launches.
It is believed that each launch from the north of Unst could require between 100 and 150 personnel and that there are hopes for a launch at least every month after initially starting off with six to eight a year.
The project, which would make use of the accommodation at Saxa Vord, has received the backing from Shetland Islands Council and the Unst Community Council as well as the isles’ politicians.
The UK government wants to make the country a “world-leading destination” for satellite launches and new legislation is currently before parliament to allow the regulation of the first launches from the UK.
Unst was highlighted in the SCEPTRE report, which was part-funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), as it would allow an unobstructed route into orbit because of its remote location.
The Unst plans will be submitted to the UK Space Agency next year and other sites in the likes of Sutherland, the Western Isles and Prestwick will also be in consideration.
It is thought that the size of the satellites which would be launched from Unst would be the size of a shoe box.
Strang, who is joined in Shetland Space Centre Ltd by business colleague and former RAF fighter pilot Scott Hammond, said there has already been interest in the site from commercial companies and the military.
The news comes after the Ministry of Defence announced earlier this year that it would re-establish its radar base at Saxa Vord, with the site expected to be on stream next year.
The re-emergence of radar in Unst is thought be a major boost to the island’s bid as it would allow the tracking of satellites.
“From the report and our discussions with experts in the field, it is clear that the former Ministry of Defence aerial farm north of Saxa Vord hill, or the old MoD site at Lamba Ness, would be ideal for satellite launches,” Strang said.
“That, and the fact that we have had an amazing amount of interest from commercial firms and the military, suggests that there is tremendous potential for Unst and Shetland to become part of a fast-growing, £13.7 billion sector of the UK economy that supports more than 6,000 jobs in Scotland alone.
“It’s exciting, but this is a long game and we will be working together with Shetland Islands Council, the UK Space Agency and other stakeholders to progress our plans.
“We all know that Shetland has fantastic infrastructure and transport links, lots of very able people and a track record second to none in innovating to support industry. Key decision makers are recognising that, and it’s important that we all work together in Shetland to deliver tangible benefits across the islands.”
Saxa Vord would be capable of launching satellites weighing up to 400kg and it could support polar and sun-synchronous orbits.
One company already exploring the possibility of using Shetland as a small satellite launch site is Edinburgh based Skyrora.
Its team recently visited the isles on a research visit, as well as the Western Isles, Sutherland and Andøya in Norway.
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said it is an “emerging industry and one where our geography could, for once, work to our advantage.”
“Shetland Space Centre is an interesting and potentially very exciting proposal which could have the potential to bring significant investment to the community in Unst.” he said.
“Obviously we are still in the early days of this and there is a lot of work still to do. It is vital that the local community in Unst are engaged in the proposal as it proceeds.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott called on the Scottish Government to support Unst’s bid and said he will make the case for the project in the coming weeks.
“To win the bid we need the Scottish Government and its main agency HIE to be 100 per cent behind Unst,” he said. “As Unst is the location that industry wants, that should be straightforward.
“The Ministry of Defence reinstating the radar at Saxa Vord is a game changer in Unst being the place for satellite launches. The radar means that industry can track the launches. No other site in Scotland can offer this service.
“So there are huge advantages to the Unst case. I will be working with all the parties concerned to make sure Unst wins this work. The island has had some hard knocks and this would be a huge fillip both for local people but also the wider Shetland economy.”
North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson commented that the knock-on effects to Shetland as a whole could be “substantial”.
“This is an incredibly exciting development which, if successful, could have massive implications, not only for the island of Unst, but the knock-on effect for the whole of the Shetland economy could be massive. Saxa Vord is seen as the prime location for this project,” he said.
“There is still plenty of hard work to be done, but Frank and his team must be given a huge amount of credit for the colossal effort to get it to this stage. He is working closely not only with us at the SIC, but with politicians and officers locally and nationally and he has my full backing.”
Shetland Islands Council’s development committee chairman Alastair Cooper echoed Thomson’s views.
“Obviously there is a lot of work ahead for Shetland Space Centre Ltd and in a relatively short period of time, but the council will do what it can to support the project bid and the local community as this process goes forward,” he said.
Unst Community Council chairman Gordon Thomson said Strang gave a presentation to members on Monday evening.
He feels the island has “quite a good chance” of succeeding in the bid and added that Unst would have the capacity to cater for the extra personnel following the RAF boom in previous decades.
If the plans came to fruition they could also see the Unst airfield redeveloped to include hangars which would allow space to work on satellites and rockets.
Thomson added that there had been some concerns locally over the impact it could have on wildlife like nesting birds, but it is thought that the location of the potential site and the number of launches would not present a problem.