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Spaceport plans continue ‘regardless’ of rivals

Saxa Vord owner Frank Strang.

THE TEAM behind proposals for a satellite launchpad in Unst plans to press ahead with applying for a licence from the UK space agency even if it loses out on funding from the organisation.

Shetland Space Centre Ltd’s Frank Strang said continued interest in the proposed facility from launching companies means it does not need to rely on grant money the government is giving out to kick-start the satellite industry in the UK.

He has now employed a team of five people to work full-time on the proposals and, with the support of Shetland Islands Council, the company wants to open the potential spaceport in 2020 if it is successful in gaining a licence.

News broke in November of Shetland Space Centre Ltd’s plans to launch small satellites in the far north of Unst after a report commissioned for the UK Space Agency picked the area as the preferred site for the country’s first vertical satellite launches.

Unst was deemed an attractive location as it would allow an unobstructed route into orbit over relatively unpopulated areas, while sites in Sutherland, the Western Isles and Prestwick have also been mooted.

But Strang clarified that the bidding war is for funding from the UK Space Agency – not just for applying for a licence.

“We’re going ahead regardless of the opposition,” he told Shetland News.

“We’re a long way down the road with the launch providers and we’ve been approached already by people wanting to invest.”

The space agency said in November that 26 proposals were submitted for funding and, once new legislation is passed to regulate launches, “these initial missions from the UK will pave the way for a commercial launch market”.

It states that it will announce the outcome of the funding applications in early 2018, while a web portal to allow operators to apply for licences is expected to be up and running in the summer.

Could Unst be the home of a satellite launch port?

A planning application for the Unst spaceport will soon be lodged with the SIC, while a business plan is being pulled together in addition to a lawyer being consulted on matters relating to the licence.

The spaceport could potentially located at the former Ministry of Defence aerial farm north of Saxa Vord hill, or at Lamba Ness.

Strang likened the licence application to opening a new airport when there are parties already interested in using the facility.

“In theory everyone could apply for a licence,” Strang added.

The businessman, who also owns the Saxa Vord Resort in Unst, said the SIC’s development team have been “incredibly supportive” of the plans, which could potentially bring millions into the local economy.

“Everyone in Shetland is pulling in the same direction,” Strang said. “It’s not down to me – it’s about our location. I’ve never been more excited about a project in my life.”

Strang will update Unst Community Council at the end of January, while the team – which also includes former RAF fighter pilot Scott Hammond – will hold an open forum on the island in March where members of the public can ask questions.

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson said there were lingering community concerns about the potential environmental impact of launching rockets.

But he believes the issue may not be quite as worrying as some people have feared.

“The concerns are to do with the type of ‘rocket fuel’ that is being used,” Thomson said.

“The ‘net result’ of the combustion process is water so the type of fuel being proposed is the most environmentally friendly possible. The mix is high-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen.

“Other concerns put to me are on noise pollution and the impact this may have on birds, and also concerns about accessing the coastline. I believe the project will not have any impact on access to the coastline and the impact on birds and wildlife will be assessed during an impact study.”

New company Skyrora, meanwhile, has already visited Shetland as it looks to find a location for launching small satellites.

Business development manager Daniel Smith said the isles’ existing facilities also work in its favour.

“Shetland is on our shortlist because it has a number of benefits, including good infrastructure inherited from the oil and gas sector, and excellent clear trajectories, meaning that you can fly to the required orbits without having to waste fuel on manoeuvres to avoid populated areas,” he said.