Am Bratach No. 310
August 2017


Satellites getting closer

A proposed satellite launch facility at the Moine, between Durness and Melness, has taken a significant step forward. A consortium led by the US aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, has submitted a bid to the UK Space Agency for grant funding to take forward the proposal, which is supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. An announcement on the application is expected this autumn.

We spoke to Roy Kirk, Highland Enterprise’s’s area manager for Caithness and Sutherland, to find out more about the plans. Mr Kirk stressed that the idea was still very much in its early stages, and that there was a lot of consultation work still to be done if the proposal makes it to the planning phase. A move within the UK Space Agency to claim a 10% share of the global space market by 2030 lies behind the search for a space port in Britain. Other sites in Scotland for which proposals have been submitted include Macrihanish and Prestwick.

The reasons behind the selection of the Moine as a possible site are geographical. According to Mr Kirk, “These microlaunchers aim to avoid human habitation. Therefore when you look at the whole of Britain, the north mainland and some of the islands have an advantage in that they [the rockets] would go out to sea. That led to an investigation of what sites might allow access to these orbits. On the north mainland, the optimum site was this one near Melness.”

Mr Kirk said that the scale of the proposed facility was relatively modest. “The more traditional way to put satellites in orbit is through what we call vertical launch. People probably associate vertical launch with big heavy lift rockets and Saturn V and so on. What we’ve been looking at is what the industry is terming micro lift or micro launchers… When people think of satellite launches, there might be the image of a Cape Canaveral. It is clearly not that. It is a different scale.”

Among the possible benefits of the facility, Mr Kirk envisages a boost to the local economy. “We are very interested in the jobs this might bring to local people. We believe there would be some apprentices required, assembly jobs, engineer jobs, and there would be jobs that would involve new skills. We think that there would be a fair amount of these jobs that would be well paid.” On this front, is there any sense that an industrial development on this scale could be construed as a potential heir to Dounreay? “It wouldn’t replace it”, says Mr Kirk, “but, should it proceed, this would help to ensure that the north would come out of the decommissioning of Dounreay in a positive economic position.”

As to the satellites themselves, who is likely to be launching them, and for what purpose? Mr Kirk says that they would be mainly for earth observation (the weather) and telecommunications. Although Lockheed Martin has a background in defence technologies, the function of the satellite base is intended to be commercial.

Mr Kirk admits that the full impact of the proposal needs to be thought through. The proposed site is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and, as such, he says there has been preliminary discussion with Scottish Natural Heritage. “If we can get to the stage of concluding our investigations, there would be full public consultation,” he says.

The land on which the proposed site is situated is owned by the Melness Crofters Estate, with which Highlands and Islands Enterprise says it is “in discussion”. Neighbouring landowner Anders Holch Povlsen is known to be no advocate for industrial developments in Sutherland. Thomas MacDonell, director of conservation for Mr Povlsen’s Wildland Ltd, previously expressed concerns that the wilderness-type holidays his organisation is trying to sell could be jeopardised by an industrial development of this type (Am Bratach, April 2016). Along with Tim Kirkwood, the chief executive officer of Wildland Ltd, Mr MacDonell reiterated that it was difficult to give a view on the latest move by Lockheed Martin without further detail. However, the general drift of Wildland’s thinking is clear. “We’re not against green energy and we’re not against a vibrant local community, but we don’t see rockets as the way forward”, says Mr MacDonell. Mr Kirkwood agrees: “We don’t like the idea and we won’t be supporting it, but until we know the facts, it’s very difficult to comment any further”. 

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