IT was once Scotland's only departure point for transatlantic flights, but within four years Prestwick airport could become Europe's space tourism hub after it was named among six possible sites in Scotland for a new spaceport.

The Department for Transport has published its shortlist of eight locations across the UK as potential launchpads for commercial spaceflight, satellite bases and scientific research.

The Scottish locations are Prestwick airport in Ayrshire, Stornoway airport in Lewis, Campbeltown airport at Machrihanish in Argyll and Bute, RAF Leuchars in Fife, and Kinloss Barracks or RAF Lossiemouth, both in Moray.

Also shortlisted were Llanbedr airport in North Wales and Newquay Cornwall airport in England.

The Civil Aviation Authority, who compiled the report, said if work began immediately it would be "possible for spaceplane operations to commence from the UK by 2018 or earlier".

It comes just a week after government-owned Prestwick airport's future as a passenger airport was cast into doubt after its only carrier, Ryanair, halved its winter schedule and announced it would begin operating from Glasgow airport from October.

If selected as the location for Europe's first commercial spaceport it would become a major attraction for space tourists, although its runway would require an extension to meet the 3,000-metre minimum for spaceplane operations. Only Campbeltown's runway already meets this criterion.

Although mass market space travel is unlikely to become affordable for several decades, the technology could eventually benefit ordinary holidaymakers by, for example, cutting the journey time to Australia from 20 hours to an estimated two.