Satellites Launched From Shetland? It’s Possible!

by Alastair Hamilton -

According to a study co-sponsored by the UK Space Agency and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Shetland’s northernmost island of Unst is an ideal place from which to launch satellites.

The SCEPTRE report led to the establishment of a new company, Shetland Space Centre Ltd, which aims to promote the island as the place in the UK from which satellite launches would take place. Shetland Space Centre Ltd was created by Frank Strang, who, several years ago, bought the former RAF facilities in Unst and turned them into the Saxa Vord Resort.

The attraction of Unst for launches is that – because it’s an island far from centres of population – it can meet the requirement that such launches take place where the rocket carrying the satellite will not fly over populated areas.

The island has other advantages, too. There is an existing airstrip, which, though little used in recent years, could easily be re-commissioned to provide space for support activities. What’s more, the people of Unst are no strangers to innovation, as there is a well-established energy centre which provides advice world-wide on hydrogen power and other renewable technologies.

Unst is an ideal place from which to launch satellites

Two possible sites have been identified. One is on Saxa Vord, the highest land on the island, which was for many years the site of an RAF radar station monitoring air traffic. The RAF closed it as part of the so-called ‘cold war dividend’, and later removed the prominent radome, but it is to be re-established in the light of a need to keep an eye on renewed military air activity.

Another option is available a short distance north-east of Saxa Vord. Lamba Ness is a peninsula stretching out into the North Sea and is also a former Ministry of Defence site.

Frank Strang believes that there is ‘tremendous potential’ for Shetland to be involved in satellite launches. He points out that the islands have a strong track record of providing support services, bearing in mind oil industry activity over more than forty years. He’s also been impressed by the fact that “we have had an amazing amount of interest from commercial firms and the military”.

there is ‘tremendous potential’

It’s clear that it will take time to make the case and secure the base for Unst, since Shetland will not be the only area considered for the project. However, politicians, including the islands’ MP and MSP and local councillors, have expressed strong support.

There are many reasons to visit Unst, which has great wildlife, wonderful coastal scenery, intriguing geology, two rewarding local museums and a very popular tearoom. Maybe, in a few years’ time, satellite launches could be another reason to spend some time there.

Posted in: Transport