Shetlands isle in bid to be UK’s first spaceport

The UK Space Agency has named one of the Shetland Islands, Unst, as a possible location for the UK’s first spaceport, which could transform the local economy.

Unst is on a shortlist of 26 locations for the UK’s first independent launch facility. The aim is to allow Britain to compete in the delivery segment of the small-satellite market.

The grassy isle of Unst is the northernmost inhabited landmass of the British Isles. If designated, it would use a Ministry of Defence radar site at Saxa Vord that had been decommissioned but which will shortly be reinstated to track Russian military aircraft.

Unst was identified as the most promising launch site in Britain in a study supported by the UK Space Agency, and part-funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The Sceptre report said: "The site offering the maximum payload mass to orbit is Saxa Vord in the Shetlands, from where direct launch is possible to both sun-synchronous and polar orbits."

The report also found that rockets launched from Saxa Vord could carry the greatest payloads into commercially valuable orbits with the lowest risk to inhabitants if the spacecraft failed and crashed back to Earth. It would also be able to use the military radar to track launches.

The facility could require between 100 and 150 personnel to support a monthly delivery programme – a big deal given the population of the isle is only 600.

Jo Johnson, the science minister, told an audience in Belfast on 9 November that the space industry was "one of the most exciting industrial opportunities the country has". He said: "We’re pulling together a really exciting programme for industry that we want you to be aware of to take full advantage of it."

Legislation to regulate launches is currently before parliament and the agency plans to announce the outcome of its call for grants proposals to achieve low cost access to space. In total 26 proposals were submitted to the call, and the UK Space Agency is currently considering grant applications to support the first launches from UK soil.

Unst will now make more detailed proposals to the UK Space Agency, and in the meantime local politicians are putting together a lobbying campaign to back the islands’ case in Westminster and Holyrood.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott called on the Scottish government to support Unst’s bid and said he would make the case for the project in the coming weeks.

"To win the bid we need the Scottish government to be 100% behind Unst," he told Shetland News. "As Unst is the location that industry wants, that should be straightforward. The Ministry of Defence reinstating the radar at Saxa Vord is a game changer in Unst being the place for satellite launches. The radar means that industry can track the launches. No other site in Scotland can offer this service.

"So, there are huge advantages to the Unst case. I will be working with all the parties concerned to make sure Unst wins this work. The island has had some hard knocks and this would be a huge fillip both for local people but also the wider Shetland economy."

Image: Will Unst be the site of the UK space industry’s first port? (

  • Correction: This article was edited on 28 November to correct our error in saying Unst had been named as the UK Space Agency’s "preferred location".

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  1. Nothing about the environmental effects and the threat to bird life.

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