Scolpaig in Uist could be the next Spaceport rocket launch site if planning is approved.

An application for a ‘permanent change’ to the ‘notified airspace design’ around Spaceport 1, the proposed small rocket vertical launch site at Scolpaig in North Uist, has been lodged with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) by QinetiQ Ltd.

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 1:51 pm
Updated Wednesday, 10th March 2021, 12:07 pm
Could the Scolpaig peninsula be the next satellite vertical launch rocket site? Pic: Courtesy Conor Lawless.

Spaceport 1 is being developed by a consortium led by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar with Highlands & Islands Enterprise, private investors and QinetiQ Ltd, which operates the nearby MOD Hebrides rocket range on behalf of the MOD.

In the application to the CAA, QinetiQ Ltd said that the airspace changes were being proposed to provide protection for the area from other airspace users, and confirmed that the new segment of protected airspace will connect Spaceport 1’s proposed launch site with the existing ‘Danger Areas’ managed by the company, and using the surveillance and communication capabilities of the Hebrides Range to manage the airspace and launch activities.

In the Statement of Need submitted with the application to the CAA, QintetiQ Ltd also confirmed that the Spaceport 1 consortium ‘has secured several potential operators (UK and international) who wish to launch sounding rockets from the site this year, 2021’, but said that ‘the airspace change process’ is unlikely to be complete within this timescale and a separate application will be necessary to establish ‘a temporary reserved area’, or similar, ‘to accommodate these launches in the short term’.

Vertically launched rocket

A planning application was submitted by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in 2019 to develop the Spaceport facility and to allow the launch of sounding rockets. It attracted more than 600 responses, most of which were objections.

Public consultation meetings on the plans were held locally later that year, and in April 2020 Scottish Ministers issued a Direction Notice stating that should Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, as the planning authority ‘be minded to grant permission for this development, that it should be notified to Scottish Ministers’.

The Notice also stated that the Direction did not commit Scottish Ministers to calling in the application, but it did reserve their right to intervene.

That planning application remains ‘pending’ in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s online list of planning applications.

The site in North Uist is only at the initial planning stages

Campaign organisation, Friends of Scolpaig (FoS), which is fighting for the permanent withdrawal of the proposed Spaceport 1 plan on environmental, safety and economic grounds said in a statement last week that the application by QinetiQ Ltd to the CAA was ‘putting the cart before the horse’, and claimed that since the conclusion of the public consultation meetings in September of 2019, ‘there has effectively been no information whatever forthcoming from CnES as to their intentions and progress’.

‘What is critically significant in the detail provided in the application is the number of launches now being highlighted’, FoS emphasised, ‘that is approaching an order of magnitude greater that the launch numbers advised during the public consultation meetings’.

FoS has also claimed that QinetiQ Ltd’s airspace proposals are for the use of Scolpaig for the testing of sounding rockets to be launched ‘nominally on a westerly bearing’ which, they claim had not been previously notified, and is ‘a major change with consequential impacts’ which would require to be fed into the Environmental Impact Assessment.

A spokesperson for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said: “We continue to develop the environmental impact assessment to support the planning application associated with the sub-orbital launch facility at Scolpaig.

“As the timeline for airspace change approval is lengthy, we submitted our application early to allow us to be ready to operate should Planning Permission be granted. Although we have interested parties who wish to launch from Scolpaig, they are aware of the various permissions and approvals we are required to attain.”

With regard to FoS’s specific concerns, CNES said that following the public consultation meetings, the project had been focused on compiling, in consultation with Statutory Consultees, “information and evidence to respond to the environmental and other queries raised by the community’ and said that further public consultation is planned ‘in advance of this additional information being submitted to the planning authority”.

The Comhairle’s statement added: “as one of the longest lead items for the project is airspace, it is appropriate to submit a Statement of Need to the CAA at a time that aligns with potential project timings.

“The Statement of Need has to cover all options and it is possible that more than one launch may happen in a month. This should not be seen as a statement about the activity every month. There will be months with no launch activity.”