For the 600 residents of the most northern island in the Shetlands, it could be the most exciting thing since Unstfest – the annual shindig that this year offered, among its attractions, a scything demonstration over-16s could join.
The proposals are at an early stage, but if the Shetland Space Centre Ltd gets its way, Unst could become the UK’s premier spaceport with a local economy revitalised by blasting satellites into orbit. The company was set up on the island, a breathtaking island nearer Norway than Edinburgh, after it was identified as the most promising launch site in Britain, in a study supported by the UK Space Agency.
A report on the project, known as Sceptre, found that rockets launched from Saxa Vord on Unst could carry the greatest payloads into commercially valuable orbits with the lowest risk to inhabitants if the spacecraft failed and crashed back to Earth.
Unst is so far north that rockets lifting off from the island could fly straight into orbit without passing over populated areas, unlike those from other sites which would have to perform dog-leg manoeuvres, limiting the weight of the payload they could carry.
“From the report and our discussions with experts in the field, it is clear that the former Ministry of Defence aerial farm north of Saxa Vord hill, or the old MoD site at Lamba Ness, would be ideal for satellite launches,” said Frank Strang, director of the Shetland Space Centre.
The Sceptre report assessed the risks of launching from a range of sites to polar and so-called sun-synchronous orbits, which are in high demand from satellite operators for communications and Earth observation respectively. According to the document, the next best locations after Unst include a site in the Orkney Islands, followed by others on the north coast of the mainland.
In 2014, the UK Space Agency identified eight places in Britain that could potentially host a spaceport, but selection was based on sites that had extremely long runways and other facilities needed to fly spaceplanes, which take off horizontally, rather than vertically. A spaceport in the Shetlands would launch conventional satellite-bearing rockets straight up.
Pat Burns, owner of The Final Checkout Cafe on Unst, said a spaceport was just what the island needed. “I think it’s a brilliant idea. There’s a lot of excitement about it,” she said. In the past, Unst has suffered from the closure of the RAF base and airport and the loss of services, from schools and doctors’ surgeries to care centres.
“It’s absolutely stunning here. We’re the most northern and the most beautiful island in the Shetlands,” Burns said. “But a lot of the young people go on to university and once on the mainland there’s nothing to attract them to come back. This could mean jobs and opportunities.”
A detailed bid for the spaceport could be submitted to the UK Space Agency next year. “This is potentially very exciting news for Unst, and for Shetland as a whole. If the bid is successful, the project could have significant and welcome implications for the local and Shetland economy,” said Unst councillor Alastair Cooper, chair of the development committee.
Draft laws and regulations that would govern UK satellite launches and other flights have recently been passed to the House of Lords in the form of the Space Industry bill. It marks the first step in the process that is expected to lead to Britain’s first spaceport.
Burns said she had not heard any voices against the proposal, despite the inevitability that frequent rocket launches on an island 12 miles by six might impinge on the tranquility of Unst. “I like the peace and quiet, and I love the scenery, but I like to get away too,” she said. “You’d get cabin fever if you didn’t get off for a bit.”