Satel­lites could be launched from Shet­land Is­lands' most north­ern isle

The Guardian Australia - - Environment / Science - Ian Sam­ple Science ed­i­tor

For the 600 res­i­dents of the most north­ern is­land in the Shet­lands, it could be the most ex­cit­ing thing since Un­st­fest – the an­nual shindig that this year of­fered, among its at­trac­tions, a scyth­ing demon­stra­tion over-16s could join.

The pro­pos­als are at an early stage, but if the Shet­land Space Cen­tre Ltd gets its way, Unst could be­come the UK’s pre­mier space­port with a lo­cal econ­omy re­vi­talised by blast­ing satel­lites into or­bit. The com­pany was set up on the is­land, a breath­tak­ing frag­ment nearer Nor­way than Ed­in­burgh, af­ter it was iden­ti­fied as the most promis­ing launch site in Bri­tain, in a study sup­ported by the UK Space Agency.

A re­port on the project, known as Scep­tre, found that rock­ets launched from Saxa Vord on Unst could carry the great­est pay­loads into com­mer­cially valu­able or­bits with the low­est risk to in­hab­i­tants if the space­craft failed and crashed back to Earth.

Unst is so far north that rock­ets lift­ing off from the is­land could fly straight into or­bit with­out pass­ing over pop­u­lated ar­eas, un­like those from other sites which would have to per­form dog-leg ma­noeu­vres, lim­it­ing the weight of the pay­load they could carry.

“From the re­port and our dis­cus­sions with ex­perts in the field, it is clear that the for­mer Min­istry of De­fence aerial farm north of Saxa Vord hill, or the old MoD site at Lamba Ness, would be ideal for satel­lite launches,” said Frank Strang, di­rec­tor of the Shet­land Space Cen­tre.

The Scep­tre re­port as­sessed the risks of launch­ing from a range of sites to po­lar and so-called sun-syn­chro­nous or­bits, which are in high de­mand from satel­lite op­er­a­tors for com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Earth ob­ser­va­tion re­spec­tively. Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ment, the next best lo­ca­tions af­ter Unst in­clude a site in the Orkney Is­lands, fol­lowed by oth­ers on the north coast of the main­land.

In 2014, the UK Space Agency iden­ti­fied eight places in Bri­tain that could po­ten­tially host a space­port, but se­lec­tion was based on sites that had ex­tremely long run­ways and other fa­cil­i­ties needed to fly space­planes, which take off hor­i­zon­tally, rather than ver­ti­cally. A space­port in the Shet­lands would launch con­ven­tional satel­lite-bear­ing rock­ets straight up.

Pat Burns, owner of The Fi­nal Check­out Cafe on Unst, said a space­port was just what the is­land needed. “I think it’s a bril­liant idea. There’s a lot of ex­cite­ment about it,” she said. In the past, Unst has suf­fered from the clo­sure of the RAF base and air­port and the loss of ser­vices, from schools and doc­tors’ surg­eries to care cen­tres.

“It’s ab­so­lutely stun­ning here. We’re the most north­ern and the most beau­ti­ful is­land in the Shet­lands,” Burns said. “But a lot of the young peo­ple go on to univer­sity and once on the main­land there’s noth­ing to at­tract them to come back. This could mean jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

A de­tailed bid for the space­port could be sub­mit­ted to the UK Space Agency next year. “This is po­ten­tially very ex­cit­ing news for Unst, and for Shet­land as a whole. If the bid is suc­cess­ful, the project could have sig­nif­i­cant and wel­come im­pli­ca­tions for the lo­cal and Shet­land econ­omy,” said Unst coun­cil­lor Alas­tair Cooper, chair of the devel­op­ment com­mit­tee.

Draft laws and reg­u­la­tions that would gov­ern UK satel­lite launches and other flights have re­cently been passed to the House of Lords in the form of the Space In­dus­try bill. It marks the first step in the process that is ex­pected to lead to Bri­tain’s first space­port.

Burns said she had not heard any voices against the pro­posal, de­spite the in­evitabil­ity that fre­quent rocket launches on an is­land 12 miles by six might im­pinge on the tran­quil­ity of Unst. “I like the peace and quiet, and I love the scenery, but I like to get away too,” she said. “You’d get cabin fever if you didn’t get off for a bit.”

The for­mer Min­istry of De­fence aerial farm at Saxa Vord was iden­ti­fied as a key site to launch satel­lites from. Pho­to­graph: Geog­ra­phy Pho­tos/UIG via Getty Images

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