After almost half a century, Britain is getting back into the space rocket business. The UK Space Agency has announced that Melness in Sutherland on the north coast of Scotland has been chosen for the country's first vertical launch spaceport. Business Secretary Greg Clark has granted initial funding of £2.5 million (US$3.3 million) to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to develop the site, which will be used to launch small satellites into orbit.

It's easy to forget that in the days of the Space Race, Britain was one of the leading contenders behind the United States and the Soviet Union, and in 1971 launched the British-built Prospero X-3 satellite atop the British Black Arrow rocket from Woomera, Australia. However, changing priorities due to the failing economy and the run up to joining what is now the European Union caused the government to abandon civilian rockets in 1972 to focus on satellite construction.

Now the government is looking at a potential market of £3.8 billion ($5.4 million) over the next 10 years, and has its sights on 10 percent of the global space market by 2030. To attain this, the UK Space Agency is keen to develop spaceports across Britain that include both horizontal launch sites using airplane-mounted boosters taking off from conventional air strips, and vertical launchers like in Sutherland. Today's grant is part of the overall £50 million ($66 million) UK Spaceflight Programme.

Scotland is the best spot for a spaceport due to its sparse population, clear flight paths over water, and clearances for both polar and equatorial orbits. In addition, the north coast has been used as a firing range for military and high altitude sounding rockets for decades, so the area is very much a known quantity.

But Sutherland is more than just a proposal and a check. Lockheed Martin in partnership with British company Orbex will provide the launch vehicle, called Prime, which is being developed under a separate £5.5 million ($7.3 million) award. There's also an additional £23.5 million ($31 million) going to Lockheed to develop the launch facilities and a new satellite deployment system called the Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle (SL-OMV) that is capable of handling six CubeSats headed for six separate orbits.

Other partners in the project include Moog, Orbital Micro Systems, the University of Leicester, Surrey Satellite Technology, Satellite Applications Catapult, SCISYS, Lena Space, Reaction Engines, and Netherlands Space Office.

The Sutherland spaceport is expected to be operational by early in the next decade when a British-built pathfinder test vehicle will validate the SL-OMV and ground system. This will be followed by the launch of a constellation of CubeSats that will deliver low latency weather observation to commercial and government customers.

"As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy," says Clark. "The UK's thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the UK in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites. This will build on our global reputation for manufacturing small satellites and help the whole country capitalize on the huge potential of the commercial space age."

The animation below shows a future launch from Sutherland.

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