Taking off but falling short: Assessing the environmental impact of the UK’s spaceport ventures

The UK’s seven prospective Spaceports

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.

Herma Ness, the northernmost headland of Unst, is a National Nature Reserve. The creation of SaxaVord Spaceport will have significant impact.

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.  Read more