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Business / Rocket picked by Lockheed Martin for Unst launches as space project takes step forward

ANOTHER “significant milestone” is said to have been reached for the Shetland Space Centre after a launch provider was selected for a government-backed project which aims to see the UK’s first vertical satellite launch take off from Unst.

California developer ABL has been contracted by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to supply rocket and associated launch services.

It is for a project called the UK Pathfinder Launch, which supports the UK Space Agency’s commercial spaceflight programme.

The government is keen to stimulate the emerging space sector in the UK, and as such it gave Lockheed Martin over £23 million for the Pathfinder project in 2018.

The aerospace company, however, signalled its intent last year to shift its support from a proposed space port in Sutherland in the Highlands to Shetland Space Centre – bringing millions in funding from the UK government north.

The first launch from the Pathfinder project is hoped to take place next year.

The launch will use ABL’s new RS1 rocket, which is said to be 88ft in height and able to carry payloads of up to 1,350kg.

On the proposed launch day, the RS1 rocket will lift off from Lamba Ness in Unst – subject to Shetland Space Centre receiving planning permission.

Once in orbit, the rocket will release a small launch orbital manoeuvring vehicle, which can carry and deploy up to six 6U CubeSats – miniaturised satellites for space research that are made up of multiple cubic modules.

This is said to optimise orbital placement and timing for each small satellite’s mission.

Lockheed Martin Space’s regional director Nik Smith said: “The world class capability that ABL Space Systems brings will allow us to build on our long-standing partnership with the UK and strengthen the growth of the UK’s space sector, aligned to the UK Government’s prosperity and industrial strategy.”

He told the BBC that Lockheed is looking to establish “an infrastructure” at the Shetland Space Centre in the hoping of potentially becoming a launch customer itself in the future on “preferential terms”.

Co-founder and CEO of ABL Space Systems Harry O’Hanley said the company was “proud” to partner on the project.

“Our team was founded to deliver new launch capabilities, on-demand,” he said.

“We’re thrilled at the opportunity to bring our system to Shetland’s launch site and execute this ground-breaking mission with our partners.”

UK Space Agency CEO Ian Annett said: “We want the UK to be the first in Europe to launch small satellites into orbit, attracting innovative businesses from all over the world, accelerating the development of new technologies and creating hundreds of high-skilled jobs across the whole of the UK.

“Lockheed Martin’s selection of ABL Space Systems for their UK Pathfinder launch brings us one step closer to realising this ambition – putting the UK firmly on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination.

“In this challenging time, it’s more important than ever that we support technologies that will help create jobs and economic growth, enabling people and businesses across the country to benefit from the commercial opportunities offered by the UK’s growing space sector and the many firms throughout its supply chain.”

Shetland Space Centre CEO Frank Strang added: “We look forward to working closely with LM and ABL on delivery in Shetland of this vitally important mission for the continued growth of the space sector in the UK.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart, meanwhile, said: “The is a welcome step in Shetland’s journey to being a spaceport and I am pleased that Unst has been chosen for this project.

“The isles are in an ideal geographical position for rocket launches, and the spaceport should have a long-term positive impact on Shetland’s economy.”

On top of the Pathfinder project, a number of other companies have committed to using the Shetland Space Centre facilities.

The project recently submitted planning applications to Shetland Islands Council, with the hope being that construction work could start later this year ahead of the first launch in 2022.