The north’s economic development quango is reviewing its involvement in the space sector as it finalises a bid for cash to meet the £17 million cost of building UK’s first satellite vertical launch facility, it has emerged.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) told The Press & Journal the purpose of the review was to ensure its approach was “informed by up-to-date information on how the market is evolving at an international level”.
According to recently published documents, the agency is also seeking clarification that its planned Space Hub Sutherland development “continues to be considered a national strategic project by ministers in Holyrood and Westminster.
Announced two years ago and granted planning approval in the summer, HIE has said the spaceport, on the A’Mhoine peninsula, is expected to create 61 jobs in the area and 250 across the region.
The Scottish Government-funded agency has approved the £17.3m cost in principle, with £9.8m coming from its own budget, £2.5m from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the remaining £5m being sought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA).
The first rocket is expected to blast off in the “early 2020s”, with the number of launches expected to grow to a maximum of 12 a year.
HIE staff are preparing a detailed business case for the project to go before the organisation’s board and the Scottish Government for approval “in the coming months”.
The agency’s decision to review its space sector policy was revealed in the minutes of the board’s June meeting, published this month.
The document said HIE officials were continuing to work closely with the UKSA, with opportunities being “explored” to “access recent market assessments”.
It added that there was regular liaison with Scottish Government bodies which are “currently reviewing Scottish spaceports and their intended customers”.
The minutes continued: “In advance of forthcoming board consideration, HIE is currently seeking confirmation that Space Hub Sutherland continues to be a national strategic project, aligned with the infrastructure plans of both the Scottish and Westminster governments. HIE policy on space is being reviewed in light of these discussions.
“Any changes that may be considered necessary will be brought back to the board.”
An HIE spokesman said: “We believe the Highlands and Islands has great potential to play a key role in the growth of the UK space sector and Space Hub Sutherland will help us capture this opportunity.
“Developing the spaceport is a complex and innovative project that will require sign-off agreement from the board of HIE, which granted approval in principle in June 2018.
“We are currently preparing a detailed business case to take to the HIE board and the Scottish Government in the coming months.
“At the same time, we are looking more widely at the sector as a whole to make sure our overall approach as a development agency is informed by up-to-date information on how the space market is evolving at an international level.”
A number of organisations are working on proposals to develop vertical launch facilities in other parts of the Highlands and Islands, including Shetland and the Western Isles. A horizontal launch facility has also been proposed at Macrahanish, in Argyll.