The multi-million pound cost of building the UK’s first spaceport in the Highlands could escalate, it has emerged.
Experts, who carried out detailed surveys to prepare for construction work at the remote Sutherland site, have warned of “greater complexity” in ground conditions than had been expected.
And concern that soaring construction material prices will also add to the bill has been voiced by board members at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which is behind the £17.3million project.
HIE’s plans to develop the Space Hub Sutherland (SHS) vertical rocket launch base, on the A’Mhoine peninsula, cleared their final legal hurdle this month, with approval from the Scottish Land Court.
A challenge by billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen’s Wildland business, which owns tens of thousands of acres neighbouring the site, was rejected in August, following a judicial review.
Surveyors contracted by HIE flagged the possibility of “greater complexity” while carrying out detailed ground investigations on the 10.4-acre site in June.
Concerns over potential cost increases for the project were raised at June’s meeting of HIE’s board.
The meeting’s recently published minutes said: “In discussion, board members highlighted the importance of paying attention to developments affecting the whole of the UK space sector, including the political environment.
“It was also noted that the outcome of ground investigations could indicate greater complexity of ground conditions than had been expected.
“The current challenge of inflation affecting materials in the UK construction sector was another factor that could lead to further cost escalation.”
The need for the agency to ensure “robust and effective governance” was in place for the project was also noted in the report.
An HIE spokesman said the discussion centred on “initial opinions expressed by the consultants while they were on-site in June.”
He added the organisation had not yet received the surveyor’s written report, but it was expected to arrive soon.
Surveys will shape spaceport’s detailed design
Staff from BAM Nuttal and Arup carried out the ground investigations over several weeks, starting in May.
They involved establishing the “sequence and thickness” of the soil strata and the level of bedrock beneath.
HIE said the findings of laboratory testing of peat, soil and rock samples would be used to “inform detailed design of foundations, access roads and spaceport infrastructure, including the control centre and launch pad complex.”
The Scottish Government-funded agency has committed to footing £9.8m of the cost of developing the spaceport on land leased from Melness Crofters Estate.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) is contributing £2.5m and the remaining £5m of the original estimated cost is being sought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which owns the former nuclear power research and development facility at Dounreay, near Thurso.
HIE staff are currently finalising a full business case for the spaceport development to be considered by the agency’s board.
Forres-based spaceflight company, Orbex, plans to use the site for regular launches of its Prime rocket, carrying small, commercial satellites into orbit.
Last month the firm’s chief executive, Chris Larmour, said he was confident the first launch could take place before the end of 2022, if construction of the facility is under way by the early in the year.