PLANS for Shetland Space Centre have taken a major step forward with confirmation that a US aerospace giant is to set up a base on the islands.

Lockheed Martin will develop its rocket and satellite UK launch operation at Lamba Ness on Unst, potentially creating hundreds of jobs.

It follows the UK Space Agency approving Lockheed Martin’s plan to use a £23.5m grant to move its UK Pathfinder Launch to the most northerly inhabited island in Scotland as part of the UK’s spaceflight programme, LaunchUK.

Shetland Space Centre has applied for permission to build a vertical launch spaceport where rockets carrying 30kg to 600kg satellites can be sent into orbit without passing over inhabited areas.

There are also plans for a £17.3m vertical launch Space Hub in Sutherland, which recently received planning permission, and is backed by Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the UK satellite launch company Orbex.

The two sites say they are not rivals.

The UK Space Agency is also supporting Space Hub Sutherland to help Orbex launch its Prime rocket from the site in 2022, with p;ans for around 12 launches a year.

Highland Council received more than 450 objections to the proposed development on peatland near Tongue, however the Scottish Government did not “call in” the application for a second look, allowing it to proceed.

Orbex has already opened a rocket design and manufacturing facility in Forres near Inverness, which could bring 130 high-skill jobs to the region.

Shetland Space Centre estimates that by 2024 its spaceport site could support around 600 jobs in Scotland, including 140 locally and 210 across Shetland.

A further 150 jobs could be created through wider manufacturing and support services across Scotland.

Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart said: “The UK Government is committed to cementing the UK’s position as a global leader in the space sector. The creation of the Shetland Space Centre is incredibly exciting and a real boost for the local economy.

“Our investment in Scottish spaceports is creating hundreds of secure and skilled jobs for people in Scotland. The Shetland Space Centre is a huge step forward for our ambitious UK Spaceflight programme.”

Nik Smith, UK Country Executive at Lockheed Martin said the UK had a “vibrant space sector”, capable of enhancing the national as well as regional economies.

“As a long-standing strategic partner to the UK, Lockheed Martin is committed to building on its proud heritage to support the UK government’s role of growing capabilities in space, exciting imagination and advancing the frontiers of science,” he said.

“From the outset our focus has been on realising the greatest economic benefit for the UK through the Spaceflight programme. The transfer of our UK spaceflight operations to Shetland will not only broaden launch options available in the UK, but also ensure the economic benefits of these endeavours are felt more widely.”

SNP trade minister Ivan McKee said Shetland and Sutherland spaceports could complement each other.

He said: “This is an extremely exciting time for the emerging space sector globally, and Scotland is situated at the very forefront of this.

“The transfer of Lockheed Martin’s UK pathfinder satellite launch to Shetland Space Centre will enhance Scotland’s existing vertical launch capability and enable us to target a wider market base through a complementary offer across multiple spaceports.

“This will provide an economic boost not only to the Shetland Isles but also maximise the commercial opportunity across the wider region, with Highlands and Islands Enterprise leading the delivery of Space Hub Sutherland alongside Scottish-based launch partner, Orbex.”

UK science minister Amanda Solloway added: “We want the UK to be the best place in Europe to launch satellites, attracting innovative businesses from all over the world and creating hundreds of high-skilled jobs.

“The potential to have multiple spaceports in Scotland demonstrates the scale of our ambition, and I want to support the industry by pressing ahead with our plans in this challenging time.

“This government is committed to backing our growing space sector, developing a comprehensive space strategy and supporting transformative technologies that will benefit people and businesses across the country.”