Why is Scotland a prime rocket launch site?

Rocket Image copyright LOCKHEED MARTIN

It has been almost a year since it was announced that Scotland could host the very first UK spaceport - and interest is far from waning.

By the end of the year, plans could be submitted to build a facility at the A'Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland.

But Scotland has a number of regions which look attractive to aerospace companies for development.

A consortium has revealed plans to build the UK's first vertical launch site at Scolpaig, North Uist, following months of investigations.

Shetland has also been earmarked as a desirable location.

So what makes Scotland's landscape ideal for launching rockets?

When looking to build a spaceport, the UK considered both horizontal and vertical launch sites.

Like their names suggest, horizontal launch sites fire rockets at a gradual angle - similar to what you would see at an airport.

Prestwick Airport, for example, is on the cusp of applying for a licence to carry out horizontal space launches from its 2,986-metre concrete case runway.

The airport also cites its "coastal take-offs, favourable weather conditions and excellent transport connections" among the factors which make it an ideal launch spot.

Similarly, Cornwall is also expected to have a horizontal spaceport operational by 2021.

Image copyright Orbex
Image caption Orbex is one of the firms looking to launch satellites from the Sutherland spaceport

A vertical launch pad, as the name suggests, is one which enables rockets to be fired directly upwards into space.

There are key criteria which are necessary for a site to be considered for this.

They revolve around the orbits of the rockets - principally known as polar and sun synchronous orbits (SSO).

An SSO is where it passes over any given point on the Earth's surface at the same local solar time. A polar orbit is one that passes over polar regions, especially one whose plane contains the polar axis.

Scotland contains sites with the best access to polar and SSO orbits without flying over land inhabited by humans.

Three key areas emerged when the government was looking into this - Scolpaig in North Uist, the A'Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland and Saxa Vord in Shetland.

All three areas set out a business case to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) as to why they would be the best site to become home to the UK Space Agency's new vertical launch pad.

So the further north the better?

Well, not quite. Members of the British Interplanetary Society concluded it would be feasible to launch from Scotland by means of an SSO or polar orbit.

The most efficient method would be a direct ascent route - a route where the trajectory does not fly over, or close to, an inhabited area of land as potential falling debris could be a risk to life.

Spacecrafts would need to perform a dog-leg manoeuvre to avoid inhabited regions, such as the Faroes or Iceland.

Not to mention they would need to avoid any "active oil and gas exploration area" - that includes the 184 oil rigs which were stationed in the North Sea by January 2018 .

Of the three sites, the government opted for the A'Mhoine peninsula bid as the best option in July 2018, beating Llanbedr Airfield in Wales.

Image copyright Perfect Circle
Image caption This is what a Scottish spaceport could look like in the early 2020s

The £17.5m facility is expected to be used for launching small satellites and was initially granted £2.5m from the UK Space Agency.

And in March, architects were appointed to design the Melness Crofters Estate site, led by Norr Consultants - a firm which was involved in the construction of the tallest building in the world, Dubai's Burj Khalifa.

Now Scolpaig is another prominent contender in the space race - the newly-unveiled Spaceport 1 is set to operate in partnership with the nearby MoD Hebrides Range.

The consortium behind the project, led by Western Isles Council, said it will benefit from proven launch vehicle technology, existing intelligent systems and access to the largest area of segregated airspace in Europe.

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