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How will the space sector re-energise the Highlands economy post-pandemic?

Orbex, space sector

The Highlands and Islands have been identified as a prime hub for the rapidly developing space sector in Scotland and will play an important role for the economy in the north post-pandemic.

While three sites have been slated for development including in the Western Isles, Shetland and Sutherland, construction has already begun on the Sutherland Spaceport.

The aim for the UK to independently launch small and sustainable space vehicles into space.

The vehicles will not carry people but small satellites for earth observation and as part of GPS tracking systems.

Northern Scotland has a geographical advantage that when the launch vehicles venture north they will fly over open water to access the polar orbits.

This prevents the vehicles from flying directly over urbanised areas if something were to go wrong.

Companies in the Highlands include Orbex, based at Forres, which supply low-cost space launch services via the UK’s private sector.

Orbex headquarters located in Forres, Moray.

They have 50 staff employed including several people from the local area, providing training in the technical aspects of building launch vehicles.

David Oxley, director of space at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, noted the advantages and the long history of space in Scotland saying:

“Scotland itself is a great place for space. It is a little known fact that Glasgow produces more satellites than anywhere in Europe.

“Edinburgh is the capital of data analysis from satellites. We tend to use data from satellites daily such as coordinating on cameras, GPS and mobile phone use. The missing piece in that supply chain jigsaw is a spaceport.”

With the expanding sector in the Highlands, a wide range of jobs will be created that will boost employment.

The sector utilises skillsets including technical engineering and rocket scientist but also requires people for admin, office and security.

The space sector will provide the Highlands with job opportunities for years.

Mr Oxley said: “There is an opportunity for the University of the Highlands and Islands to use this to upskill the workforce.

“There will be locations around the region and it is the more remote areas that are the best places for spaceports and it is always a challenge keeping people in those areas.”

“Having space jobs attracts new people to the more remote locations and keep the people we already have there by providing exciting, well-paid and sustainable jobs.”

As the project progresses however, there has been opposition. Organisations involved have kept local residents updated on the Sutherland Spaceport including its benefits.

They are also providing young people with opportunities in an expanding and sustainable sector to encourage young people to stay in the area.

Young people in the remote areas of the Highlands tend to leave to seek employment in cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness.

Following decades of fuel extraction, the peat bog that the spaceport in Sutherland sits on has been extensively scarred.

The Sutherland spaceport aims to be the first carbon neutral facility of its kind.

The reuseable launch vehicle will allow the UK to launch the vehicle multiple times making it a more sustainable method of space launch. Picture by Jason Hedges.

Funding will be assigned to improve the land which will add to the “carbon credentials of the site” which aims to be the first carbon-neutral facility of its kind.

In a bid to offset the impact of spaceport’s construction, over 76.9 hectares of peatland will be restored.

The key partner in the site, Orbex will also be using a reusable launch vehicle that will run on bio-propane for cleaner missions.

Mr Oxley said: “For 2022, we anticipate work beginning on-site. That construction comprises two buildings, one a control centre near the road which travels to the second building where the launch vehicles are held in preparation for launch.”

“All of that work will be carried out during 2022 with the first launch due to take place with the next year to 18 months.”