THE BRAINS behind Unst’s bid to become a UK spaceport for launching satellites insists that Shetland’s inclement weather is not a “deal breaker” for the project.
Frank Strang, who owns the island’s Saxa Vord resort, told Shetland News that any launches from the possible site would be “planned well in advance” with the help of long-range forecasting in an effort to avoid poor weather.
The news broke on Tuesday that Strang’s new company Shetland Space Centre Ltd would be applying for a licence to become the UK’s first satellite launching station after a report found that Unst would be the ideal location due to its rurality and its apparently clear route to space.
The businessman said between 100 and 150 people would need to be in place to oversee launches, while it is thought that hundreds more associated jobs could be involved in the supply chain – potentially giving Shetland’s economy a massive shot in the arm.
Concerns, however, have been raised over the impact the isles’ variable weather could have on the ability to launch the shoebox-sized satellites in Shetland, particularly the wind.
Strang said the maximum wind speed launches could take place in is between 30 and 35 knots – little more than 40mph – but forecasting would help operators to find periods of calmer weather.
He added that some of the weather in other sites vying for the spaceport licence, which include Sutherland and the Western Isles, is equitable to Shetland’s.
“The wind speeds on Shetland are pretty similar to the wind speeds on the other potential sites,” Strang said.
“It’s a good question, but there’s a lot of work that’s been done, and these launches are also planned well in advance. You look at the weather windows and you need your five hours of low wind speeds.”
He said it is “well planned” and that wind is “not the deal breaker that some people may think.”
New small satellite company Skyrora confirmed that it has examined locations such as Shetland, the Western Isles, Sutherland and Andøya, in Norway, for potential sites despite rockets historically being launched close to the equator.
The flight path over Shetland – often used by jets headed to and from North America – has also been mentioned as a concern, but Strang said having a re-established radar base in Unst should allow operators to ensure the skies are clear.
The businessman also confirmed that a study into the possible environmental impacts is underway, and he was confident that there wouldn’t be many problems.
“We’re actually doing that just now,” Strang said. “We’re not talking about launching Saturn Five. We believe, and we’ve got a study underway, that the environmental impact would be at a minimum.”
The possible launch site would be at the northern tip of Unst, possibly at the former Ministry of Defence aerial farm north of Saxa Vord hill, or the old MoD site at Lamba Ness.
The renowned Hermaness National Nature Reserve is not far away, which plays host to a number of bird colonies.
Scottish Natural Heritage manages the site and its local branch said the environmental impacts would be assessed as part of the planning process if the plans get to that stage.
The Shetland Bird Club said it does not have a position yet on the plans but added it is likely to discuss the matter at a committee meeting in the New Year.
Strang, meanwhile, said tourism was another possible positive knock-on effect if Unst had its own spaceport.
“The scientists that we’ve had up have said that people will come in their droves to visit the site, which would be great for the whole of Shetland,” he said.
The proposal, which has the backing of Shetland Islands Council, took many in the community by surprise – with some saying it felt more like an April fool’s joke.
But with interest already lodged from satellite companies in the possible launch site and the positive space agency report, Strang said he is hopeful the licence will be awarded to Unst.
“Government needs it to happen, and they have committed to finding a site. Everything points to us,” he said.
“It’s not a done deal, but we’ve got industry knocking on our door. Other than politics, I can’t see why we can’t make this happen.”
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