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Orbex has announced that construction has begun at Sutherland Spaceport (formerly known as Space Hub Sutherland) in Scotland, making this the first vertical launch spaceport to be built on the UK mainland.
Located on the North coast of Scotland, the spaceport will be the ‘home’ spaceport of Forres-based rocket and launch services company, Orbex, which will use the site to launch up to 12 orbital rockets per year for the deployment of satellites into Earth’s orbit.
The groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction was attended by a number of officials and stakeholders including Richard Lochhead, Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade for the Scottish Government, Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, David Oxley, Director of Strategic Projects with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and Dorothy Pritchard, Chair of Melness Crofters Estate as well as many local representatives that have supported the development of the spaceport over the years. Sutherland Spaceport is intended to become the first carbon-neutral spaceport in the world, both in its construction and its operation. One illustration of this is how peat lifted during the construction will be re-used to repair large areas of peatland that have degraded over centuries.
The establishment of a commercial spaceport in Sutherland is expected to support around 250 new employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands over the coming years, including 40 jobs in Sutherland and Caithness. Economic impact assessments commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) conclude that the presence of the spaceport has the potential to generate almost £1 billion in gross value added (GVA) for the Highlands and Islands economy over the next 30 years.
It was also confirmed today that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will contribute £3m to support the development of Sutherland Spaceport, completing a public investment package that also includes just over £9m from HIE and the Scottish Government and £2.55m that the UK Space Agency announced in 2018. The NDA chose to support Sutherland Spaceport following the decommissioning of the nearby Dounreay nuclear power station, as part of its remit to retire the UK’s oldest nuclear sites while supporting affected communities and the environment.
Orbex recently signed a 50-year sub-lease with HIE, enabling Orbex to direct the construction and assume full operational management of the new facility on the community-owned Melness Crofters Estate. Orbex’s role in the spaceport is expected to stimulate significant private investment that will benefit the local community through job creation, supply chain opportunities and other associated economic benefits.
Jacobs, the international professional and technical services company, has been contracted for the construction of the site as well as spaceport operations support, operations consultancy and engineering services, drawing on its experience of managing and operating complex, highly regulated nuclear and space-related sites. Jacobs has supported US space agency NASA across multiple high-profile Space Centers and spaceflight programs, including management of operations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Closer to home, Jacobs has also managed significant aspects of the Dounreay nuclear site on the North Coast of Scotland.
In addition to the short-term contracts for local businesses and contractors that will result from construction, Orbex will be recruiting for skilled local jobs to support the operation of the spaceport. The types of roles will span several areas including facilities and operational management, security, general administration and finance, stakeholder engagement and launch campaign-related roles. Employment opportunities will be advertised locally when recruitment commences.
In May 2022, Orbex revealed its innovative Prime rocket in its final form, the first time a full orbital micro-launcher has been unveiled in Europe. Prime is a 19-metre long, two-stage rocket designed to transport small satellites weighing up to 180kg into Low Earth Orbit. The six rocket engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of around 80km. The single engine on the second stage of the rocket will complete the journey to LEO, allowing the release of its payload of small commercial satellites into Earth’s orbit.
Orbex has received widespread interest from commercial satellite manufacturers and has already signed launch contracts with seven customers. The company also recently concluded its Series C funding round, netting the company an additional £40.4 million. Despite a challenging landscape for raising capital, Orbex attracted new investors and brought along many of its existing investors into the new round of funding. The additional funding allows the company to maintain its long-term focus beyond the first launch.
Uniquely, Orbex Prime is powered by a renewable bio-fuel, Futuria Liquid Gas, supplied by Calor UK. This fuel allows the rocket to reduce carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly sized rockets being developed elsewhere around the world. A study by the University of Exeter showed that a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket will produce 96 per cent lower carbon emissions than comparable space launch systems using fossil fuels. Prime is also a re-usable rocket which has been engineered to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit.
In preparation for the first launch, Orbex is performing a wide variety of integration tests, as well as testing launch procedures including rollout, strongback deployment and fuelling procedures. To support the integration testing stage, over the last few months, Orbex has ramped up its recruitment efforts for its Forres headquarters, adding dozens of new team members.
Kristian von Bengtson, Chief Development Officer and Interim CEO, Orbex: “Sutherland represents a new breed of spaceport, for a new breed of rocket. This is 21st century, agile spaceflight with sustainability at its core. With the construction of Sutherland Spaceport underway, this is an important piece of the puzzle that will make the UK a modern space nation. Just as importantly, we’re hopefully also setting the tone for how business can be a force for good, creating jobs and opportunities while minimising the impact upon the environment.”