Government to announce space port sites: how the UK could win the race to be the next ace place for space

Now people have been zipping into space for years, the new race is about who can be the first to commercialise it. The government is clearly keen: it wants to open a UK space port by 2018.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 18 Nov 2015

Ah, the Farnborough Air Show: for MT it’s like Christmas, only once every two years. And it looks like this one will be a big one: among the major announcements set to take place this year is government plans to build a new British space port. A space port. In the UK. Cool, no?

Alright, so bearing in mind we have yet to find the secret to making trains run on time, it could be pointed out that the idea of Britain launching its own space programme is… ambitious.

But actually, now the space race isn’t just about government willy-waving, and is more about who’s going to find a way to commercialise the cosmos, the UK is in a pretty good position. And we’re not just talking about Richard Branson’s expensive aeroplanes: with hubs in Leicester and Aberdeen, and with European space giants like Astrium and Inmarsat running huge facilities here, our space industry is one of the best in the world.

In fact, government figures show the industry is worth more than £11bn, having grown by 7.2% from £9.1bn in 2010. It now employs 34,000 people, up 9% since 2010. And it reckons our industry can grow to £40bn by 2030, capturing 10% of the global space market.

Choosing a location for a new space port isn’t straightforward: the final one will need to be 3,000m or longer, meaning there aren’t that many choices. Among those shortlisted are aerodromes at Newquay in Cornwall, Llanbedr in North Wales – and then six locations in Scotland, including Prestwick, Leuchars (just down the road from St Andrews), Lossiemouth, Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Kinloss and Campeltown.

The shortlist will be announced tomorrow by ministers (including Vince Cable, who will get a nice break from being grilled about Royal Mail) from the Department for Business, the Department for Transport and the UK Space Agency. They’ll say they want a ‘fully operational’ space port in the UK by 2018 – although the decision as to exactly where that will be is presumably slightly dependent on the outcome of the Independence vote in Scotland. Is this Cable’s attempt at bribery? ‘Stay with us or the space port gets it’?

Naturally, Cable gave a glowing quote in which he harped on about strengthening partnerships and strategic investments and underpinning the economy of tomorrow – but he’s not the only one who’s pleased. Glasgow based company Clyde Space, which last week executed a successful test launch of its tiny, 1kg UKube satellites (the first spacecraft to be fully assembled in Scotland), said a space port will ‘have wide and lasting benefits for the UK and Western Europe’.

Of course, there’s one very good reason a space port in the Outer Hebrides might not be straightforward – the same reason a space port in the Nevada desert is a very good idea: weather. Scotland gets about three days of ‘rocket launch-friendly’ conditions a year. And unfortunately, it’s one factor a Yes vote can’t affect…

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