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Space / Views sought on environmental effects of rocket company’s SaxaVord launch plans

An image of how a RFA launch could look.

A CONSULTATION is now open on plans by a German rocket company to launch up to ten times a year from the SaxaVord Spaceport.

Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) is applying for the necessary consents to launch its ONE NOM vehicle from the Unst site – with a first demonstration mooted for the second quarter of 2024.

The company will only use launch pad one, which it has exclusivity on.

The Civil Aviation Authority is now asking for views on the application.

SaxaVord already has a spaceport licence from the CAA – the UK’s first vertical launch site to gain one.

RFA is applying for a launch operator licence, and CAA said part of this includes an assessment of environmental effects.

Some elements have been “scoped out” due to environmental work already undertaken on the SaxaVord Spaceport application.

The new consultation for RFA revolves around this assessment of environmental effects.

RFA ONE NOM is roughly 40.5 metres long and 3.3 metres in diameter, and is a three-stage liquid fuelled launch vehicle.

The orbital launch vehicle will be operated to launch small satellites into a variety of orbits.

It can carry a payload with a maximum weight of 1,300kg to polar, sun synchronous and low earth orbit.

RFA’s plans to launch up to ten times annually makes up “one third of the SaxaVord Spaceport environmental budget of 30 orbital launches per year”.

A UK subsidiary of RFA was awarded £3.5 million in funding from the UK Space Agency last year.

The consultation documents said potential climate change effects caused by greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project “should be considered significant” in accordance with IEMA (Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment) best practice guidance.

“These GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in the context of overall annual emissions by the Shetland Islands are considered of minor significance,” they added.

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“Mitigation measures including the development of low carbon kerosene substitutes and the continued decarbonisation of passenger and freight transport will contribute to reducing GHG emissions.”

Documents also show that there should not be any launches from the spaceport between mid-May and the end of June to avoid disturbing birds during the incubation and early brooding period.

Potential impacts on birds have been assessed, and “the magnitude of predicted operational effects is either ‘no effect’ or ‘negligible’ for all bird species considered except one”, it is suggested.

The documents say there would are “minor operational impacts”predicted for a confidential Schedule 1 breeding species – although there was no evidence of this species recorded during breeding bird surveys in 2022.

They also say that noise during engine tests and launches will reach levels that will “exceed the criterion for community annoyance associated with aircraft noise”.

However, the short duration of noise events and their infrequent occurrence will “reduce the associated levels of annoyance to below that which may be associated with aircraft noise from conventional airports”.

The proposed trajectories of the RFA ONE NOM launch vehicle will have an overall northerly direction from the SaxaVord Spaceport.

The documents state that the UK Government has consulted with the governments of countries where the discarded “stages or fairings” from launch vehicles’ flight are predicted to land to come to an agreement to allow stages to fall in their waters.

There are memoranda of understanding in place between the UK and Faroe and Iceland, and this includes the operator making “all reasonable efforts” to avoid launch debris falling within the territory of Iceland.

There should also be no debris dropped within 12 nautical miles of the Norwegian coast.

The documents add that there are currently no operations planned to recover first or second stages or fairings from the launch vehicle from the Icelandic EEZ or any other oceanic area.

“This is because recovery of stages is an expensive operation involving specialised equipment, aircraft and multiple sea craft, personnel, and logistics,” they say.

The documents say that once at the bottom of the ocean, the stages – mainly constructed out of stainless steel – will “start an artificial reef and serve as a habitat for marine life, contributing to biodiversity in the area”.

In their conclusion, the applicant says “there are no significant operational effects of concern from the proposed project and that the proposed activities will comply with statutory requirements and environmental policy objectives”.

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