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July 19, 2018updated 04 Jan 2019 10:23am

UK’s first spaceport: How A’Mhoine compares to other global launch sites

By Phoebe Baxter

Scotland has been confirmed as the location for the UK’s first spaceport. The Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has received a £2.5m grant from the government to develop the proposal for the UK’s first vertical launch site on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland.

This is the first site to receive funding ahead of alternative locations of Unst, Shetland and North Uist. The funding is aimed at boosting suborbital flight, satellite launch and spaceplane ambitions. The site is expected to be up and running by early 2020s.

The funding follows a new law allowing companies to launch commercial space mission from spaceports on British soil signed by the Queen in March 2018.

Why put UK’s first spaceport in Scotland?

Choosing Scotland as the UK’s first spaceport might seem counter intuitive. Most launch sites are positioned near the Equator because the spin of the earth at those latitudes gives rockets extra thrust into high orbits.

However, the A’Mhoine peninsula is considered the best place in the UK to reach highly sought-after satellite orbits with vertically-launched rockets. Northern Scotland allows smaller satellites to be placed into polar or sun-synchronous orbits.

Polar flights go over the top and bottom of the world and can see in better detail things which satellites launched over the Equator cannot.

The A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, north coast of Scotland, is a remote, boggy and largely uninhabited area, making it a good location for a spaceport.

Benefits to the UK space industry

The UK space industry is growing rapidly.  According to the UK Space Agency,  the space-flight market is potentially worth £3.8bn to the UK economy over the next decade.

The UK will now join 11 other countries that currently have at least one spaceport. The USA has the largest number at six with Russia and China in second place with four each.

Currently all satellites made in the UK have to be sent abroad to be launched. A UK launch site would cut transport and insurance costs.

The spaceport is ideally suited for launching small and medium sized satellites. Most satellites are around the size of a three-litre bottle of soft drink and are packed with advanced electronics.

HIE’s chief executive, Charlotte Wright, said: “The decision to support the UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland is tremendous news for our region and for Scotland as a whole. The international space sector is growing and we want to ensure the region is ready to reap the economic benefits that will be generated from this fantastic opportunity.”

However, Sutherland has not received a confirmed spaceport licence yet. While the Space Industry Act 2018 is on the statute book the detailed regulation which would have to be met does not exist yet. Issues like range safety and insurance remain to be resolved before it can be confirmed.

The UJK government has also announced a £2m fund for horizontal launch sites. Horizontal launches involve spacecraft carried by conventional, reusable aircraft. Cornwall Airport Newquay is developing a horizontal air-launch platform to be operational by 2021.

The world’s biggest spaceports

Baikonur, Kazakhstan

Baikonur is the first and largest spaceport in the world. It was founded in 1955 and remains the most popular launch site. The site is located in the Tyuratam desert near the Aral Sea in present-day Kazakhstan and the site occupies 1550 square kilometres. It is currently on lease to Russia until 2050 and has been the primary launching facility for the Russian space programme, including Sputnik, the first successful space launch of a satellite in 1957. It had 13 launches in 2017.

Cape Canaveral, USA

Located in Cape Canaveral, Florida, this spaceport has been the principle US launching site for long-range missiles, earth satellites and manned space flights. It covers an area of 5,879 square kilometres. The first US space satellite, the first manned flight to orbit the earth and the first manned lunar expedition, were all launched from here. It had seven launches in 2017, and the Kennedy space centre on the same complex had 12 launches.

Jiuquan, China

Jiuquan is the largest spaceport in China, containing three launching complexes and covering 2,848 square kilometres. It is situated in the Gobi desert, Inner Mongolia. It has been in operation since 1958, the first of China’s four spaceports. It is most commonly used for verticle launches into lower and medium orbits with large orbital inclination angles as well as testing medium to long-range missiles. It had six launches in 2017.

Kourou, French Guiana

Also known as the Guiana Space Centre, it is situated on the north east coast of South America, close to the Equator. It is used by the French government and shared with the European Space Agency (ESA).The first launch from the site was made in April 1968. It had 11 launches in 2017.

Sea Launch, International

Sea launch is a floating multinational spaceport. The project was started in 1995 and by 2014 it had assembled and launched 32 rockets. It is located exactly on the Equator on the Pacific Ocean near Christmas Island. This means the rockets can be fired from the optimal position increasing payload capacity and reducing launch costs compared to land-based systems. But there have been no launches here since 2014.