By Toby SkinnerOctober 1st 2020

A corner of Britain’s northernmost island is preparing to be the site for the UK’s first ever commercial satellite launch – putting Shetland at the heart of a fast-growing global space industry.

Right now, the lonely headland between Norwick and Skaw – Britain’s northernmost beach – sits empty but for a few abandoned wartime shelters. Shetland’s silent northernmost edge seems an unlikely spot for what could be one of its most dynamic new industries: sending satellites into space, with plans to start before the end of 2021.

And, for all that the location seems unlikely at first, it’s exactly why the UK Space Agency has touted this corner of Unst as the best place in the UK to launch small satellites. It is about as far north as you can get in the country, meaning less energy is required to enter polar orbit. From here, satellites – which might be used for everything from meteorological reports to analysing plants and providing broadband – can take off without passing over any human settlements, as there’s nothing but sea between Skaw and the Arctic.

Britain doesn’t yet have a satellite launch site, but consultants Frost and Sullivan have estimated that a UK small satellite market could be worth £4.2 billion between 2021 and 2030. The Shetland Space Centre is competing with Space Hub Sutherland to be the UK’s first launchpad, but Shetland is leading the way. American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has moved its planned UK Pathfinder Launch operations to Unst, with plans to launch Britain’s first commercial satellite here in 2021, while Canadian C6 Launch Systems has signed a letter of intent to use Unst as its primary launch facility.

“It’s a hugely exciting opportunity for Unst and Shetland,” says Scott Hammond, the operations director of the Shetland Space Centre. “It could mean more than a hundred local sustainable jobs, and a boom in tourism, with people coming up to watch these launches.”

It could mean more than a hundred sustainable jobs, and a boom in tourism, with people coming up to watch these launches.

With plans to have 30 small satellite launches a year after the first launch (the Sutherland site only has permission for 17), Hammond says that Unst makes sense for reasons other than pure geography. One is the infrastructure left over from the former RAF base at Saxa Vord, which ceased operations in 2006, including an air-strip at Baltasound – not to mention the engineering know-how in an archipelago that has supported the oil and gas and maritime industries for decades. He points to Shetland companies like Lerwick-based engineering firm Ocean Kinetics or the Pure Energy Centre on Unst, which works with the hydrogen that fuels rockets.

“A lot of existing satellite launch sites are in these very remote places,” says Hammond, pointing to places like the Pacific Spaceport complex in Kodiak, Alaska, New Zealand’s Rocket Lab or the Andoya Space Centre in remote Arctic Norway. “In Shetland, there’s a huge appeal to the fact that a lot of the work and maintenance on rockets can be done close by. And Shetlanders have a real can-do spirit. They tend to be good at rolling up their sleeves and getting things done.”

Shetlanders have a real can-do spirit. They tend to be good at rolling up their sleeves and getting things done.

Shetland’s space journey began in earnest in 2017, when representatives from the UK Space Agency came to Shetland following their own recommendations in a report titled Sceptre. They were shown round Unst by Hammond, a former RAF pilot and oil and gas industry technical director, and now-CEO Frank Strang, a one-time RAF PE teacher who runs the Saxa Vord resort in the former RAF base, as well as the Shetland Distillery known for its Shetland Reel gins. “When we went down to London after that first meeting, we were greeted like long lost brothers,” says Hammond. “They told us they were hoping that someone from Shetland would come, and things have been moving fast from there.”

One key question for the Shetland Space Centre is how it might ecologically affect this pristine corner of Shetland, with an Environmental Impact Assessment in progress. “We think the actual physical impact on the landscape will be quite light,” says Hammond. “The main thing we’re looking at is noise, and how we can use steam technology to deaden the sound.” But he says that visitor won’t need ear protection to watch launches from the beach at Skaw or Norwick, watching the small rockets head to 60,000 feet in 60 seconds. “It will be more like a low rumble than a sharp sound.”

Space industry quick facts

  • 9,000 satellites could launch this decade, five times more than the number of objects sent into space in the past 60 years
  • The global small satellite industry is expected to grow from £2.2 billion in 2020 to £5.5 billion by 2025
  • The UK Space Agency wants the UK space industry to be worth £85 billion by 2030

The ecological aspect is a key part of getting the local community onboard with the plans. Hammond says that 95 per cent of the Unst community are behind the space centre, assured by the SSC’s argument that new sustainable jobs will be created, and that staff from rocket companies will be of benefit to local businesses, from engineering firms to Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms in Haroldswick. “It will be like the RAF coming back, and will offer the area a chance to grow further in technology and engineering,” he says. “We also love the idea that it will all be driven by renewable Shetland energy.”

The global satellite industry, which was worth US$277 billion in 2018, has serious growth potential. The United Nations Office for Space Affairs has said that close to 9,000 satellites could launch this decade, more than five times the number of objects sent into space in the past 60 years. Key players include Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which plans to supply broadband to unserved corners of the planet.

The British government wants the UK to have a ten per cent share of the global space market by 2030, and has purchased a 45 per cent stake in bankrupt satellite company OneWeb, which still plans to compete with the likes of Amazon in supplying broadband to the world. Scotland already builds more satellites than any country outside the US, through companies like Glasgow-based Spire Global and Clyde Space, while firms such as Space Intelligence have made Edinburgh a global leader in analysing satellite data. “The launch facilities are the missing part of the jigsaw in a way,” says Hammond. “It’s a huge opportunity for Shetland to be part of this huge national and global industry, which is only set to grow. For Unst, it could be completely transformational.”

For more information and the latest news, visit the Shetland Space Centre website.