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Viewpoint / Unst spaceport will bring ‘biggest transformation’ to isles since arrival of oil and gas

With the first launches from Shetland Space Centre planned for May 2022, chief executive Frank Strang has reflected on the progress so far

IT’s hard to believe that in just under a year, the first vertical launch of a rocket carrying small satellites into orbit is scheduled to blast off from Unst.

The UK Pathfinder launch, which Shetland Space Centre will host and our partners Lockheed Martin and ABL will deliver, will be the first of its kind from British soil.

For four years, ever since we laid eyes on the Sceptre Report produced for the UK Space Agency, which singled out Unst as the best location in the country for vertical rocket launches, we have been striving to get to this point.

It has been quite a battle, but that is a story for another day. For now, our focus is 100 per cent on securing our planning permission and submitting our spaceport licence application. With continued support from Shetland Islands Council and the UK and Scottish governments and their various agencies, we will start building out in August to be ready for the first of many small rocket launches in May 2022.

Frank Strang.
Frank Strang.

The global demand for payload space for small satellites is growing at an exponential rate, as technological developments broaden the range of human activities that can usefully be supported from space.

There is a perception that spaceflight is not helpful for tackling the climate emergency, but satellites are used in a wide range of ways to help, principally by improving efficiency.

To give one example, satellite data for aircraft flying outwith radar range can, in conjunction with other information such as weather forecasts, help to improve the efficiency of flightpaths, saving fuel and cutting emissions.

With regard to launch, the space sector is looking at the use of environmentally friendly propellants and different types of oxidisers to minimise emissions of hazardous gases. The re-use of materials, through for instance the recovery of rocket stages, is also a prominent development.

The spaceport will result in the biggest transformation in Shetland since the arrival of North Sea oil and gas 50 years ago. It will bring a whole new sector – the new space economy – to the islands.

That is why the Unst and wider Shetland communities have been so tremendously supportive of our project.

This transformative effect of the new space economy is recognised by the SIC, hence the elevation of space to the status of key strategic priority for Shetland and the sector’s place in the Islands Deal.

A project board has already been formed between Shetland Space Centre and Shetland Islands Council, with committees covering Economy, Community & Environment, Education & Employment, Contingency Planning and Promotion & Tourism.

As our planning application spells out, there will be hundreds of new jobs, many of them in local companies which have already been demonstrating their excellence for our partner, the German rocket company HyImpulse Technologies, which carried out a series of engine tests at the former Scatsta Airport last month.

There is more of that to come, with HyImpulse due to return in July for further testing and again in September or October to test out a small sounding rocket.

A schedule for sounding rocket launches from other partners is being worked on, and a team of officials from the Civil Aviation Authority, which will have a key role in regulating spaceflight, will be visiting Unst very soon. Similarly, officials from the UK Space Agency will be taking a trip north.

It is imperative that between now and next May, with the support of these agencies, we use the time wisely to test our operating procedures, learn and adapt. Safety will be at the heart of everything we do.

But rocket launches won’t be the only thing we do. There is already a huge amount going on, and as the year progresses, things are only going to get busier.

Education is a hugely important strand of our work, and Mike Mongo, the US author of The Astronaut Instruction Manual, will be travelling to Unst to host a virtual summer camp from 5 to 30 July. Aimed at 10-12 year olds who want to live, work and play in space, it will feature astronauts Dr Sian Proctor and Nicole Stott and trainee astronaut Alyssa Carson.

Mike will also hold virtual and in-person sessions with Shetland schoolchildren between 21 and 25 June.

In the tertiary education sector, we are already building partnerships with a range of academic institutes, including the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leicester and the University of Alaska.

If you want to find out a bit more about our work behind the scenes, and hear from a range of people who know their stuff when it comes to space, you can tune in to our weekly podcast.

I’m not allowed to say much more about this, because it is hosted by my daughter Emily along with Bryden Priest, but it’s available wherever you download your podcasts or via our website.