15 July 2018

Lift-off for Scotland

The wild and unspoilt north of Scotland - I see no rockets!

SCOTLAND'S A’Mhoine peninsular is one of the most beautiful and remote spots left in the UK. It’s in Sutherland at the very top of mainland Scotland and you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it.

I visited the area one Easter. It was some long drive from ‘civilisation’ along deserted and desolate minor roads skirted by the most breath-taking mountain and coastal scenery imaginable.

More than 100 miles north of Inverness, we pitched a couple of tents for the night on a pristine, white-sanded beach at Scourie. It was just us, the waves and the wildlife - and a crystal clear dark sky.

The next day we continued another 20 miles or so north to Durness, a small civil parish in the north-west the Scottish Highlands. This isn't the most north westerly point in mainland Scotland but it is certainly the most north westerly village.

It marks the point at which the main coast road from Scourie turns right and heads south east to Thurso via Tongue and through the A'Mhoine peninsular.

Durness is one of the few remaining places of any size in mainland Scotland that you can only access by single track road. The white lines cease some 14 miles south on the A838, and the road east along the north coast of Scotland to Tongue and Thurso has many single track stretches.

The multi-billion pound aerospace industry's high-tech Farnborough International Airshow might then seem a ‘million miles’ away but this is where business secretary Greg Clark officially announced on Monday (16 July) that Scotland is to host a new UK launch base on the A’Mhoine peninsular .

The UK government is making £2.5 million available to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish government's economic and community development agency to “develop a vertical launch site in Sutherland”.

And according to Clarke’s statement it “could see lift-off from the early 2020s and create hundreds of jobs. It will use innovative rocket technology to pave the way for a world-leading spaceflight market in Britain”.

Really, one might ask? Of course, the UK’s tabloid press websites couldn’t wait for the embargoed countdown to pass (10.30 pm on 15 July) and were fast off the mark with flights of fancy.

“The spaceport will host launches of satellites and rockets into outer space before eventually including commercial flights which will venture outside our atmosphere,” wrote Mark Hodge in The Sun.               

SNP (Scottish National Party) MP Philippa Whitford seemed to have a better grasp of things when quoted in The Mirror. She said, “launches are currently carried out from Kazakhstan,” giving the distinct impression to the unitiated that Brits might be lining up to compete directly with the Russian launch site.

“Easy launch access from Scotland would benefit the commercial satellite industry right across the UK,”  added Whitford.

Well indeed it might but let’s be honest the A'Mhoine peninsular is not going to be anything like the launch facilities in Kazakhstan, or French Guiana (Europe’s rocket launch site), or NASA’s Florida for that matter.

An artist's impression of the proposed launch site.

Like much of recent government policy, the spaceport announcement is definutely a high-profile attention-grabber designed to make the country feel that in a post-Brexit world it will recapture something of the pioneering spirit.

However welcome the idea, it’s short on detail, content and, above all, finance. I’m guessing that the £250 million would be barely enough to get planning permission through - and the rest will have to come from private funding.

One pathway to a British launch site might lie with the likes of Skyrora, a startup launcher business with serious private funding and it’s headquarters in Scotland.

"As a launch company based in Edinburgh it's very exciting for us that, finally, the UK's first vertical spaceport has been given the green light to be built in Scotland,” business development director Daniel Smith told me.

A consortium led by American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin might also become one of the partners. It could bring a version of the Electron rocket to Scotland which it currently is starting to fly out of New Zealand.

Greg Clarke’s ambitious statement that we “could see lift-off from the early 2020s and create hundreds of jobs” may seem overly simplistic given the hoops hat still have to be jumped through.

But perhaps we should keep things in perspective? Despite the tabloid hype we’re not, at least for the time being, talking about blasting people into space - merely a new breed of satellite known as CubeSats, which are roughly the size as a loaf of bread and can be hurled into orbit on top of a giant firework.

The countdown clock is already ticking on a lucrative commercial market for launching the new generation of mini satellites and time is short for the UK if it wants to capture a significant share of the nascent small launch market.

Regional authorities, rocket operators and the government are going to have to move fast if they want to avoid the opportunities being snapped up other countries. Come on Scotland, you can do it!

See my news item too - Rockets for Scotland

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