Could Shetland now beat Cornwall in the British space race?


With the failure of Virgin Orbit’s historic mission on Monday night, the door has now opened for a different spaceport to lay claim to being the first in Britain to launch satellites into orbit.

Step up Shetland.

The SaxaVord spaceport, which is one of three including Cornwall due to begin operations this year, has just signed a deal with a German rocket manufacturer to attempt a lift-off in 2023.

But unlike Cornwall’s horizontal version involving a modified Virgin 747 jumbo, SaxaVord is a vertical launch facility.

Remote: SaxaVord spaceport, which is one of three including Cornwall due to begin operations this year, has just signed a deal with a German rocket manufacturer to attempt a lift-off in 2023 

But unlike Cornwall's horizontal version involving a modified Virgin 747 jumbo, SaxaVord is a vertical launch facility. Pictured is Jorn Spurmann, chief commercial officer of German firm Rocket Factory Augsburg AG, with SaxaVord CEO Frank Strang

But unlike Cornwall’s horizontal version involving a modified Virgin 747 jumbo, SaxaVord is a vertical launch facility. Pictured is Jorn Spurmann, chief commercial officer of German firm Rocket Factory Augsburg AG, with SaxaVord CEO Frank Strang

Shetland’s SaxaVord spaceport: Key facts

Cost: £43 million, rising to £100 million in the next five years

Number of launchpads: 3

Other infrastructure: Satellite tracking station, hangars, and other infrastructure needed to support launches

Number of launches: 30/year

Timeline: First orbital launch later this year

This means it will host rocket launches in the same way as the iconic blast-offs from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Apollo 11 lifted off from in 1969 to send humans to the moon for the first time.

But if Cornwall’s Newquay Airport operation seems tucked away in Britain’s most south-westerly county, that is nothing compared to SaxaVord.

It is based at Lamba Ness in Unst, the most northerly point in the British Isles — where the nearest railway station is in Norway. 

The spaceport has just signed a deal with Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), based near Munich, which includes a launch ‘currently planned for the end of 2023’.

It will involve blasting a satellite into a ‘sun-synchronous orbit’ 310 miles above the Earth, meaning it will orbit pole to pole and pass over each point on the planet at a fixed time. 

That is not the only mission that could lift off from Shetland this year, either. 

Lockheed Martin’s Pathfinder project could also be launched in 2023 as SaxaVord goes head-to-head with Spaceport Cornwall, which may also try another mission later this year.

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said the company had begun an internal investigation into the root causes of the failure and added that it was ‘not out of the question’ that another launch attempt could be made this year. 

It means Shetland and Cornwall could go head to head in the attempt to carry out the first successful satellite launch from British soil. 

The spaceport will see satellites launched into orbit from the Shetlands by the end of the year

The spaceport will see satellites launched into orbit from the Shetlands by the end of the year  

The Lamba Ness peninsular in Unst (pictured) will be home to the £43 million spaceport

The Lamba Ness peninsular in Unst (pictured) will be home to the £43 million spaceport

When asked whether he would like his spaceport to earn that title, Scott Hammond, the deputy chief executive of SaxaVord, told The Times: ‘It would be awesome, there’s no doubt about that. 

‘But we’ve seen with Cornwall that this is a tough gig, doing things for the first time. 

‘Spaceport Cornwall did everything they had to do [on Monday] — for them it was a success. We will debrief with them so we can learn the lessons. This is all about Team UK and we are really proud of what Spaceport Cornwall have done.’

The other spaceport being built is in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, which could also begin operations within the next 12 months. 

However, Hammond said he thought the Shetland site was several months ahead of Sutherland in its development. 

Announcing details of the partnership with SaxaVord, RFA chief commercial officer Jörn Spurmann said: ‘We are super excited to launch our first flight from SaxaVord.

The launch of the two metre Skylark Nano rocket in June 2020, which reached an altitude of six kilometres, from the mainland of Shetland

The launch of the two metre Skylark Nano rocket in June 2020, which reached an altitude of six kilometres, from the mainland of Shetland

‘This partnership of privately financed companies enables the spirit and speed that we need, to be on top of the commercial small launch competition. 

‘The SaxaVord team was incredibly determined to build our launch pad and get the operations up and running. We are proud to be part of this historic event for the UK having built the first launch pad in mainland Europe. 

‘We firmly believe in the UK’s strategic space vision and are absolutely convinced that the double-digit million investment in the site is well placed on our part.’

SaxaVord Spaceport CEO Frank Strang said: ‘We’re delighted to kick off the New Year by announcing our partnership with RFA. 

‘We will support RFA across the entire lifecycle of a launch, from facilitating testing, inspections, fueling and safety, to supplying MET weather data and access to our ground station network for data capture and distribution. 

‘The entire team cannot wait to welcome RFA and work closely as we edge closer to the UK’s first vertical space launch in Unst.’

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