By Mike Merritt

Up to 40 launches a year could take off from Britain’s first spaceport – more than seven times the number local people were originally led to believe.

In addition, the rockets could now be up to 30 metres (98.4ft) high – almost double previous estimates.

The revelations – in official documents put before planners – has left some residents of the Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, proposed as the site for the spaceport, feeling they have been hoodwinked.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) scoping report prepared by consultants for spaceport backer Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been placed before The Highland Council.

On its own website, HIE says: “It is anticipated that up to six launches will be carried out annually, with the first taking place in the early 2020s.”

But the scoping document says there will be up to 40 each year.

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The £17.3 million project, which has split the local community, has attracted support from the UK Space Agency, which is also funding two launch companies that plan to set up in Sutherland – Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Orbex.

Space Hub Sutherland is planned as a key component of Scotland’s growing space sector, which HIE hopes will bring a major jobs boost to the area.

But the Mhoine launch site is next to the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands special protection area and special area of conservation, and the Ben Hutig site of special scientific interest.

The report – which suggests the site could be operational from 2021 – says: “The duration of each launch campaign is expected to run for approximately four to six weeks starting with delivery of the launch vehicle (LV) and ending with successful launch and facility clean down.

“There is potential that launch campaigns could run concurrently ... there could be approximately 40 launches per calendar year.”

It adds: “It is expected the largest LV would be approximately 15m-30m in height and 1m-2m in diameter.”

The drop zone for the rocket’s first stage is expected to be in waters to the west of the Faroe Islands and southeast of Iceland.

If things went wrong: “A major anomaly occurring in the flight stages would initiate a range commanded destruction. Depending on the flight stage, this could result in debris landing on land or in the marine environment. Combustion products would be formed and would disperse in the atmosphere.”

John Williams, chairman of the Protect the Mhoine campaign group, said locals were shocked at what was being proposed. “This is not what what we were told. People were led to believe there would be up to six launches a year and that the rockets would be 17 metres high.”

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In his response to the document, crofter George Wyper wrote: “The report also states there can be up to 40 launches a year with a preparation time of four to six weeks day and night. This would result in continuous noise and disruption with the landscape floodlit every night.” He questioned the benefits of the plan for local people.

Local councillor Hugh Morrison said: “This is disappointing. There is a lot of difference between six launches and up to 40. We told HIE they had to be honest with people from the start and these figures are at odds with that.”

But Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, accused some locals of misleading statements. “A very small group of people have publicly made a lot of very silly accusations and statements about Space Hub Sutherland,” he said. "We are grateful for the support of the vast majority living in Tongue, Talmine and Melness. But the claims some campaigners are making are nothing short of baffling.”

HIE said understanding the environmental impact, as well as the economic benefits, will be crucial in determining the outcome of any future planning application.

A HIE spokesman said: “Space Hub Sutherland is a hugely ambitious and complex project that is at a relatively early stage of its development. The purpose of the initial scoping exercise is to seek input from statutory bodies and a range of interested parties that will guide a future environmental impact assessment. It is not a planning application.

“Understanding the potential impact ... on the local area, specific habitats and the marine environment is a vital part of our design work. We fully appreciate the concerns that people have for the Mhoine in particular, and will be rigorous in assessing environmental impact and taking steps to address all identified risks.

“We are working towards submitting a planning application before the end of 2019. Before then, as part of the pre-planning process, we will carry out extensive community consultation. We very much hope that local people and organisations will want to take an active part in that process.”

A recent study by Professor Mike Danskin of Heriot-Watt University and Geoff Whittam of Glasgow Caledonian University questioned the focus by HIE on the Mhoine site over others and suggestws a consultant’s report commissioned in 2016 overstated the level of community support while not paying enough attention to infrastructure issues and environmental designations.

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By a majority of almost two to one, crofters last year gave a big boost to the plans. Melness Crofters Estate, which owns the prospective launch site, has confirmed its intention to work with HIE towards agreeing heads of terms.

It could cash in from more launches, as it would get at least 1% of each launch fee, on top of an annual rental from HIE said to be worth around £70,000. The community would also get 1% of launch fees.

Space is big business in Scotland, generating more than £1 billion for the economy and supporting about 20,000 jobs.