Challenging the environmental impact of the UK’s military expansion into space

In February, Shetland Islands Council granted planning permission for the proposed SaxaVord Spaceport, located on the Lamba Ness Peninsula in the northeast of the island of Unst in the Shetland Islands.  Other Scottish spaceports have also been proposed for Sutherland in the Highlands and at a site in the Western Isles.

The proposed developments on Unst are relatively modest in terms of their footprint on the ground, comprising of a gatehouse, three launch pads, a satellite tracking station, two hangar buildings, an administration building, pyrotechnic store and hazardous materials store – and a wildlife hide – on a site of about 198 acres (80 hectares).  But this masks a much larger environmental impact resulting from the space launch activities which are planned at the site.

Lamba Ness peninsula on Unst, before work on Spaceport began.

To carry out spaceflight activity in the UK spaceport and launch operators must be licensed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Shetland Space Centre Limited has applied for such a licence to operate a vertical spaceport from Unst.

Construction work has begun even though consultation on environmental impact is still ongoing.

As part of their licence application, spaceport and launch operators are required to submit an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE). The purpose of the AEE is to ensure applicants have adequately considered any potential environmental effects of their intended activities and, if necessary have taken steps to avoid, mitigate or offset the risks and their potential effects. The AEE for the Saxavord Spaceport has been prepared and submitted on behalf of the operators by ITPEnergised (an international consultancy), whose job is to present the development in the best possible light – highlighting the benefits and playing down the impacts in order to ensure that a license is issued for the spaceport. It should be noted that even as the public consultation on the Assessment of Environmental Effects was ongoing, work had begun on construction of the spaceport. 

The CAA has now commenced scrutiny of the AEE as part of the licensing process for the spaceport, and invited comments from the public on the plans during a short consultation period in November – December.  Before issuing spaceport and launch operator licences the CAA must take into account the applicant’s assessments and the proposed measures to mitigate any significant environmental effects.  As the spaceport wishes to operate a vertical spaceport and provide range control services (at the Launch and Range Control Centre, LRCC) they are required to apply for a both a spaceport licence and a range control licence, although the  AEE is only relevant to applications for spaceport licences.

Up to 30 launches per year (maximum) over a period of 30 years are proposed from Unst. Launches would avoid flying over inhabited areas and oil fields, and no satellite launches would take place between mid-May and end of June to avoid disturbing birds during the breeding season.  Rockets up to 30 metres in height could be launched from the site, and all launches would take place in a northerly direction over the sea.  US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and Edinburgh-based Skyrora are among the companies looking at launching satellites from Unst.

It is proposed that launches will consist of both sub-orbital sounding rockets and orbital placement of small satellites into either polar or sun-synchronous, low-earth orbits.   Satellites in polar or sun-synchronous orbits will pass over any given point of the planet’s surface at the same local mean solar time – hence they are used for imaging, reconnaissance and weather monitoring.

For orbital launches, the height of the launch vehicle is assumed to be between 13 and 30 meters; rockets will have either two or three stages. The sub-orbital launch vehicles will be between 1.5 to 8 metres in height and will be a single stage. All launches will take place in a northerly direction over the sea.

Drone Wars UK has submitted comments in response to the CAA consultation, (see below).  As well as addressing the topic areas reviewed by the operator, we have considered wider issues which the AEE currently neglects, such as upper atmosphere and climate change impacts, impacts caused by space junk, and ethical impacts linked to the militarisation of space.

Submission to CAA on Assessment of Environmental Effects -SaxaVord Spaceport

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