If you’ve been following UK aerospace news in any way, it’s likely you’ve come across the LaunchUK programme – the UK government funded scheme to turn Britain into a hub of modern commercial space activity. The reasons for this are plenty, but put most simply, the UK’s geography makes it an ideal candidate for orbital launches from Europe. It is at a relatively high altitude, allowing for easy access to low earth orbit, and it is surrounded by the ocean, reducing the danger of something going wrong above population centres.
The UK Space Agency has provided support to seven individual projects to set up spaceports – launch sites for satellites – some of which have seen more success than others. Last year, for example, Spaceport Cornwall saw its first (and only) attempted launch, carried out by now-bankrupt Virgin Orbit. Other projects are underway (to varying degrees) to launch small satellites from sites in Shetland, the Outer Hebrides, Sutherland, Argyll, Ayrshire and Snowdonia.
At the same time as this investment in space infrastructure, the UK is also committed to expanding its military presence in space. Over the past two years, for example, we have seen the setting up of UK Space Command, the publication of a Defence Space Strategy and the announcement of several new military development programmes in this area. Indeed, just as a small rocket could be used to launch weather satellites, so too could it be used to launch military surveillance equipment into orbit – for example, the BAE-manufactured Azalea satellite cluster, which is planned to enter operations in 2024.
The aim of this blog post however, is not to look back at the history of the UK’s spaceport programme. Rather, it is to evaluate the situation as it stands at the moment, and to suggest how things might be developing in the coming months. Some of the projects mentioned above are relatively easy to assess. Spaceport Snowdonia, for example, appears to have stalled entirely, and the projects at Prestwick Airport and Machrihanish (Ayrshire and Argyll) are only in their very early stages. Planning for Prestwick Spaceport is in its pre-application phase, and Spaceport Machrihanish has submitted no formal applications as yet, despite having received over £700,000 in UK government funding.
The real developments are happening further north. SaxaVord Spaceport, located at the Lamba Ness peninsula on the remote island of Unst in northern Shetland, is expected to be the next spaceport to be able to carry out launches, and following the failure of Virgin Orbit, is now scheduled to be the site of the first satellite launch from the UK. It is also planned to be the first new spaceport in Europe able to conduct vertically launched orbital flights.
Environmental impact ignored
As it stands, construction is mostly completed, with the site now consisting of three launch pads, with the concrete and steel now laid out and the launch stool erected for the first. Deals have been signed with private companies, most notably with Rocket Factory Augsburg, to go ahead with launches later this year, and with HyImpulse, which has now conducted seven engine tests on the site. SaxaVord CEO Frank Strang has suggested that the final hurdle – gaining a license from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – may be cleared as soon as August 2023, after which orbital flights from Shetland may well become a reality by the end of 2023.
Yet this is not without issue. There are several factors that appear to have been neglected, if not ignored in their entirety. The first, and perhaps the most obvious problem, is the matter of environmental impact. SaxaVord’s site has been constructed a mere three kilometres from Hermaness National Nature Reserve – one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies, with over 100,000 breeding. By SaxaVord’s own admission in a consultation response for the CAA, launches will cause significant noise levels of around 85 decibels in parts of the protected area, which is equivalent to the noise of traffic on a busy road – and, according to the Environmental Impact Assessment created for the project, can be expected to have implications for wildlife.
In addition to this, there is the matter of safety. Referring to SpaceX and the explosion of its Starship rocket in April, Strang suggested that, in the space industry, 80% of first launches ‘are going to fail’. However, failure so close to an important nature reserve carries huge risk. A similar spaceport project, built in Kodiak, Alaska, was host to a rocket accident in January. Nobody was hurt, but infrastructure was damaged and nearly 20,000 litres of fuel was released as a result of the crash. Obviously, it’s not a foregone conclusion that an accident on this scale would occur on Unst, but the fact that it’s a possibility, in such close proximity to one of the biggest seabird colonies in the UK, is a cause for concern.
Trans-Atlantic flights to be rerouted
So, if the pads are constructed and the contracts have been awarded, why aren’t launches already happening in Shetland? At the time of writing (June 2023), the Civil Aviation Authority is currently undertaking consultations regarding changes to UK airspace that will need to be put in place for any rockets to fly safely. There appears to be little concern domestically, although there appears to be a significant issue relating to Icelandic air traffic control. This is because the proposed flight corridor and exclusion zone for any rockets launched passes directly north of the UK, and straight into the Reykjavik flight information region. According to the CAA’s consultations, this would affect 76 flights on any given day, some of which would have to be rerouted south of the exclusion zone. The knock-on effect of this on launch days is two-fold: increased workload for Icelandic air traffic controllers, and decreased revenue for Isavia ANS, the company that manages Iceland’s air traffic and pays the aforementioned workers. Furthermore, there is an environmental cost to rerouting so many flights; whilst one plane travelling a little further to avoid an obstacle has a comparatively small environmental impact, the extra fuel burn from potentially thousands of flights (were SaxaVord to achieve its desired thirty launches per year) is by no means trivial. We contacted the Icelandic Transport Authority and, whilst they cannot comment on the ongoing CAA consultation, they did confirm the aforementioned consequences such a change to UK airspace will have.
Will promised jobs materialise?
Space Hub Sutherland, situated on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, began construction in May this year, despite having received almost four times as many objections during planning consultation as it did responses in support of the project. Rocket manufacturer Orbex and developer Highlands and Islands Enterprises have promised the local community 250 jobs as a result of the project, although residents, including respondents to the Highland Council’s planning consultation seemed sceptical that twelve small rocket launches each year would permanently require such a large workforce, and have expressed concerns about the impact such a project will have on the region. Indeed, on the environmental side of things, the area around the site has extensive peat bogs which would of course be endangered were an accident to occur. The developers have suggested that soil removed from the site during construction would help revitalise the bogs, but that doesn’t negate the possibility of accidents in future. An Environmental Impact Assessment published in February 2020 acknowledged the impact on local wildlife, the risk to peat bogs and the noise and air pollution resulting from heavier traffic in the area, however these were dismissed in the EIA as negligible. In a similar manner to the project underway on Shetland, the flight corridor designated for launches is mostly over the sea – so once again, flights will need to be rerouted and there is a possibility of impacting seabirds in the area. According to the current Civil Aviation Authority schedule, a decision will be reached on the application for a secure flight corridor by summer 2024.
Overwhelmingly critical responses
Spaceport One on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides is a little further behind. Both the planning application to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Outer Hebrides council) and the airspace change application to the CAA are still being considered, the latter aiming to come to a decision by summer next year for this project too. Similar to Space Hub Sutherland, responses to the planning application have been overwhelmingly critical of the project, chiefly on environmental grounds as, once again, the site is within four kilometres of an RSPB designated nature reserve. Furthermore, there is concern about the impact launches, which will be sub-orbital in nature, might have on the islands of St. Kilda, a UNESCO world heritage site located just over sixty kilometres west of North Uist. QinetiQ Ltd., one of the companies developing the site considers the risk of short sonic booms being heard on St. Kilda negligible but concedes that they may occur throughout the year. Naturally, this will disturb the habitats of the extensive seabird population of the islands, even if the noise only lasts for a short period of time at irregular intervals. Furthermore, the launch site is within a few kilometres of the St. Kilda viewpoint on North Uist, and there are several concerns about increased industrial traffic in the area, which, like Sutherland, may disturb animal and plant life near the site. The campaign group Friends of Scolpaig is currently collecting signatures for a petition aiming to stop the project in its planning phase, before any work affecting the natural environment is begun.
Spaceport projects across the UK are promising a lot to local communities. They have popped up in parts of the country that, traditionally, have received very little in the way of investment – so perhaps it is no surprise that some people are really excited about the prospect of their locality hosting a launch site for rockets. Because of the rarity of such projects, developers can promise a lot and communicate very little to communities, without much risk of powerful opposition. Were the impacts of these sites more widely known, perhaps local authorities would not be so keen to host them in environmentally sensitive areas, which although remote for humans, are often thriving animal habitats. Furthermore, the very nature of LaunchUK as a commercial programme, driven by an assortment of private businesses, implies competition between sites. Some may well succeed in their aims. Others may fail. The economic benefits of these enterprises are therefore questionable at best – several have been unable to achieve that which they initially promised, including the aforementioned sites in Alaska and Cornwall – and developers are often unable to answer, in practical terms, exactly how local people will benefit.
The cost to both international security and the environment of a new space arms race should be at the forefront of our thinking not an almost forgotten afterthought. Millions of pounds are going to spent launching military and commercial systems into space with an untold amount of harm being done to the environment as a result. Outer space is a region of wonder and inspiration and it continues to challenge and inspire many people who wish to explore and discover. However, a growing number of space activities are simply focussed on commercial exploitation and warfighting. We’re calling for much more public discussion and debate about this new push to exploit space for military and commercial purposes. Currently, decisions with huge implications are being made by a small elite of policymakers and wealthy entrepreneurs for their own purposes and not for the benefit of humanity. This must change.
Timothy Parker, a recent graduate of the University of Reading, researched the development of UK spaceports and the implications of AI for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme as part of an internship for Drone Wars UK.