The race to space

by Mark Burgess -

Commercial space flight is now becoming a reality and the new frontier to tame and standardise. In this setting, the island of Unst, the most northerly inhabited landmass of the UK, finds itself at the forefront of this new industry.

Sending rockets into orbit, and beyond, is no longer a goal that only a prosperous government would consider. Big business is pushing the space race forward with satellite technologies we all use every day. Through the ambition and foresight of those behind the Unst-based Shetland Space Centre, the means to deliver these satellites into orbit from Shetland may be only a year or so away.

The UK’s new satellite launch marketplace is in a phase of relatively fierce competition with several parts of the UK vying to become established launch points. Unst sits as a prime contender due to its location and geography. A main requirement for sending the newest phase of satellites into orbit is a north-south launch trajectory and the north of Unst is ideal for this.

Unst has always been a centre of activity for new ventures. Its position in the centre of the North Sea/Atlantic Ocean divide has made it an industrial hub since the Viking era. Fishing fleets favoured the harbour at Baltasound from earliest times and the 70s North Sea oil era brought a dedicated and busy airport with regular fixed wing and helicopter flights to serve the industry. Unst also has track records in specialist quarrying and aquaculture. The Saxa Vord RAF base sported the cutting edge of Radar technology from World War II onward, and still does today. For an island seemingly on the periphery of its sovereign state, with a population of just over 600, this is no backwater.

Now, in the beginning of this new era of space launches, Unst finds itself, again, a centre for a new burgeoning industry. Space flight could now perhaps be compared to early transatlantic travel, having come through a similar phase of exploration and “scientific” traffic and moving on to that which is overtly commercial. Diverse vehicles are being designed and built for this new market and the “tall ships” of space exploration are being superseded by nimble, innovative and very different craft. One such craft, or its precursor at least, made an appearance at Unst on 14 July and heralded the first launch from the Shetland Space Centre. Not a mighty rocket ship, this (near) space craft was a simple balloon.

Space innovators, B2Space, use high altitude balloons to carry rockets close to space. The technology, know as “rockoons”, are an advanced version of a concept first proposed by the US Navy in the 1950s. Creating a high altitude launch point is hoped to be more cost effective than a conventional, ground-based, launch. Co-founder of B2Space, Valentin Canales said: “The purpose of the test flight is to confirm our ability to operate from Shetland by gathering data, adding to the theoretical study that we have carried out on the last 15 years of weather data.”

“We believe it will support our case for a permanent base here in Shetland, not only for launched to orbit, but for performing ‘near space operations’, such as testing satellite components in conditions similar to the ones faced in orbit. This is a project we are working with the European Space Agency on.”

A report, co-authored by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in 2017, identifies Saxa Vord, in Unst, as the best launch site position available in the north coast of Scotland. However, a site in Sutherland has been identified to receive £2.5 million in government funding as the base for launching vertical rockets and satellites. A final decision on this funding is due in December. In the meantime, Shetland Space Centre is building a network of industry connections and partners and will continue to make their case for a launch site in Unst. Towards this, they are seeking for a government license to be issued for both locations.

The recent launch was described as “a major success” by Shetland Space Centre project director Scott Hammond, “proving that Unst is the best location for launching into space”.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for the Shetland Space Centre team, working with our local partners such as Pure Energy and Ocean Kinetics, backed by Shetland Islands Council and HIE, to conduct a live operation and learn from it, which we have done”.

The government’s financial commitment to basing launch sites throughout the UK was set at some £50 million in 2017. This investment is hoped to place the UK in a prime position in the global market for satellite launching, estimated to be worth some £10 billion over 10 years. The UK Space Agency estimate a value of £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the same period.

The Unst launch drew an appreciable show of support from the local community, with an enthusiastic crowd turning out to watch the balloon lurch skyward on this blustery July day. As competition grows in the UK race for space, the B2Space launch in Unst has laid down a marker to the industry that Unst is open for business and getting noticed for the real potential that this location holds.

Posted in: News, Space

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