Stornoway airport has been named as a potential candidate for the UK’s first spaceport.
Eight airports have been shortlisted in a report by the Civil Aviation Authority as sites for a future spaceport, six of which are in Scotland.
Ministers want to establish the UK spaceport by 2018, a timescale not long enough for a purpose-built facility to made.
Figures from the government show that the space sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK. In 2012-13, the UK space industry had a turnover of £11.3 billion, and it’s hoped that this can reach £40 billion by 2030. The sector currently directly employs 34,300 people, mostly in high technology jobs and projections for 2030 estimate the creation of 100,000 additional jobs.
Launching satellites would initially be the main business at the new spaceport, however operators in the emerging ‘space tourism’ industry, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, have shown interest in European bases.
The shortlisted locations along with Stornoway are: Campbeltown Airport, Glasgow Prestwick Airport, RAF Kinloss, RAF Leuchars, RAF Lossiemouth, Llanbedr Airport in Wales and Newquay Cornwall Airport in England.
Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, as operator of Stornoway and Campbeltown airports, would need to agree to the UK Government’s plans before spaceport developments could begin at their sites.
HIAL was briefed by the UK Government, alongside representatives of the other sites, before the official announcement of the potential port locations, which they are currently studying in detail, and they plan to make a submission to the ongoing consultation in due course.
Inglis Lyon, Managing Director of airport operator HIAL, said: “This is a hugely exciting opportunity for the location eventually selected to host the UK’s first spaceport. We are delighted that Campbeltown and Stornoway airports have been included in the UK Government’s shortlist and look forward to engaging with the Government as it progresses this ambitious and exciting project.“The potential return on investment is huge, with the promise of high skill jobs and significant opportunities for the tourism, research and development, and science and technology sectors. This project has the opportunity to put Scotland at the forefront of space research and exploration.”Many different factors were considered in short listing potential spaceport sites, including; local population density, airspace complexity and regional weather, as well as a runway that is sufficiently long to enable spaceplane operations.
Stornoway was identified as a potential site where more significant runway extensions, additional airspace protection and additional local analysis and research may allow sub-orbital operations to take place.
The CAA report said: ‘Spaceplanes are widely acknowledged as the most likely means of enabling commercial spaceflight experience or, as it is widely known, ‘space tourism’ - in the near future.’
‘Several operators have indicated that their spaceplanes will be ready to commence operations within the next five to ten years; several have also indicated their desire to operate from the UK.’
Spaceplanes, with the ability to land, are re-usable and so they are dramatically cheaper than vertical rockets. Estimates propose an 80% decrease in launch costs when the spaceplane technology is fully developed.
Passengers have paid £120,000 for Virgin Galactic’s first ‘space tourism’ flights, scheduled to take off from a purpose-built spaceport in New Mexico at the start of the year. The 150-minute flight will achieve zero gravity at 62 miles above the earth for roughly six minutes. A spaceport in the UK offering these flights is estimated to be able to generate £500 million a year within 10 years of operations starting.
The more distant future sees plans for ‘intercontinental very high speed travel’ which the CAA report saw as having the largest potential benefit to the UK: ‘By entering sub-orbital flight paths, vehicles would be subject to lower atmospheric drag and would allow the Earth to rotate under them. This would permit substantially faster journey times for intercontinental flights.’
‘The cost benefit of reducing travel times from the UK to Australia from 22 hours to just two hours has been estimated at over £160 million per year.’