01 November 2022 News

NASA contractor to oversee Scottish spaceport construction

Orbex Prime launch from Sutherland, Scotland. (Orbex)
Orbex Prime launch from Sutherland, Scotland. (Orbex)
A Scottish rocket manufacturer and orbital launch services provider is to build and operate the first vertical launch site for satellites on the UK mainland for its eco-friendly Orbex Prime rocket, which is billed as a game-changer for small satellite developers and operators, enabling them to launch light satellites much more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Orbex, based in Forres, Moray, has now signed a lease with development agency Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) for the spaceport location on community-owned land on the A' Mhoine peninsula in north-west Sutherland.

HIE has been developing launch plans for several years and leases the site from Melness Crofters' Estate. The sub-lease with Orbex will run for 50 years, with an option to extend for a further 25 years.

Orbex will oversee the construction and assume full operational management of the new facility. The 10-acre launch site will become the long-term 'home' spaceport of Orbex and will see the launch of up to 12 orbital rockets per year, carrying satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO).

Total private investment over the initial three-year period is expected to reach £20 million and Orbex says it expects to create up to 40 technical and non-technical FTE jobs to support the operation and maintenance of the site.

The roles will span a number of areas including facilities and operational management, security, general administration and finance, marketing, stakeholder engagement and launch campaign-related roles.

HIE identified the potential for the Highlands and Islands to play a significant role in the UK's growing space sector several years ago, recognising that rural locations that are close to coasts and have a northern latitude can make ideal satellite launch sites.

With the backing of the UK Space Agency (UKSA), HIE set to work developing plans for the Sutherland spaceport in 2018, with specialist input from architects NORR and construction consultants Gardiner & Theobald. At the same time, HIE commissioned detailed environmental studies to inform a broad range of protection measures around the site.

Planning permission was granted by the Highland Council in August 2020. A separate development application to the Scottish Land Court - which was required as the launch site is on crofting land - was also successful.

Following its recent participation in Orbex's Series C funding round, it has been confirmed that global technology-forward solutions company, Jacobs, will assume the role of prime construction contractor on behalf of Orbex.

Jacobs will collaborate with Orbex to provide spaceport operations support, operations consultancy, and engineering services, drawing on its experience of managing and operating complex, highly regulated sites such as Cape Canaveral in the United States.

Jacobs is NASA's largest services provider, delivering mission-tailored solutions and full life cycle aerospace capabilities, including the Mars Perseverance Rover and the Artemis deep space human exploration programme.

Overseeing the construction and operational management of the new spaceport will allow Orbex to streamline the development of the state-of-the-art facility, drafting in industry experts such as Jacobs to help meet its objectives.

Sutherland Spaceport is intended to become the world's greenest spaceport, both in terms of its construction and its operation. One illustration of this is how peat lifted during the construction will be re-used to repair large areas of peat land that have degraded over centuries.

Uniquely, the new Orbex Prime rocket is powered by a renewable biofuel, Futuria Liquid Gas, supplied by Calor. This fuel allows the rocket to reduce carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly sized rockets being developed elsewhere around the world.

A study by the University of Exeter showed that a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket will produce 96 per cent lower carbon emissions than comparable space launch systems using fossil fuels. Prime is also a re-usable rocket which has been engineered to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit. Orbex has already received a great deal of interest from commercial satellite manufacturers and has signed launch contracts with a number of customers.

Chris Larmour, Orbex CEO, said the company would become the first European launcher business to also manage a dedicated spaceport. “It is an important competitive advantage to the company, which will make it really easy for us to work with customers as we scale up our operations.”

According to David Oxley, Director of Strategic Projects, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the space industry represents “a huge economic opportunity” for the Highlands & Islands and for Scotland.

“We believe the spaceport has the capacity to generate around 250 jobs in our region, including 40 on site, plus opportunities in manufacturing, supply chain, research and service provision,” he said.

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