It is to be a lynchpin of the UK’s burgeoning space industry and the place where rockets will ascend into the atmosphere up to a dozen times a year.   

Deep in the Highlands of Scotland, construction work has begun on Britain’s first spaceport capable of vertically launching spacecraft into orbit, bearing payloads of satellites skyward and propelling Scotland to the forefront of space technology.  

And on the ground, it is hoped that Spaceport Sutherland will support hundreds of jobs across the in the Highlands and Islands and attract investors from around the globe.  

Ground has officially been broken at the site on the Melness Crofters’ Estate which will be the 'home' spaceport of Forres-based rocket and launch services company Orbex, with operations scheduled to begin later this year. 

The company has leased the site for 50 years and work is now underway to transform it into a facility capable of launching its Prime rocket - Europe’s first a full orbital micro-launcher. 

While other spaceports are in development around the UK, Sutherland looks set to win the space race and be operational first, with plans to launch up to 12 orbital rockets per year into Earth’s orbit  

It is also intended to become the first carbon-neutral spaceport in the world, both in its construction and its operation. 

The Herald:

The Orbex Prime rocket 

Kristian von Bengtson, Chief Development Officer and Interim CEO, at Orbex said: “Sutherland represents a new breed of spaceport, for a new breed of rocket.  

“This is 21st century, agile spaceflight with sustainability at its core. With the construction of Sutherland Spaceport underway, this is an important piece of the puzzle that will make the UK a modern space nation.  

“Just as importantly, we’re hopefully also setting the tone for how business can be a force for good, creating jobs and opportunities while minimising the impact upon the environment.” 

READ MORE: 'Milestone' as firm applies for licences to launch satellites 

Funding has been secured through private investors along with £9m from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and the Scottish Government, and £2.55m that the UK Space Agency announced in 2018.  

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will also contribute £3m to support the development of Sutherland Spaceport following the decommissioning of the nearby Dounreay nuclear power station, as part of its remit to retire the UK’s oldest nuclear sites while supporting affected communities. 

Economic impact assessments commissioned by HIE conclude that the launchpad has the potential to generate almost £1 billion in gross value added (GVA) for the Highlands and Islands economy over the next 30 years. 

It could also be the springboard for a jobs boom, with around 250 new employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands created over the coming years, including 40 jobs in Sutherland and Caithness. 

The Herald:

An artist's impression of a typical launch

Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said: “This marks a major step forward for Sutherland Spaceport and demonstrates the UK’s growing launch capability and the thriving space sector in Scotland. 

“Not only will Sutherland Spaceport unlock 250 new job opportunities and boost the Highlands and Islands economy, but its carbon-neutral ambition underlines the UK’s position as a world-leader in sustainable space activities.”  

In May last year, Orbex revealed its innovative Prime rocket in its final form, the first time a full orbital micro-launcher has been unveiled in Europe.  

Prime is a 19-metre long, two-stage rocket designed to transport small satellites weighing up to 180kg into Low Earth Orbit.  

READ MORE: Virgin Orbit failure sees talk turn to Scottish spaceports

Orbex Prime is powered by a renewable bio-fuel, Futuria Liquid Gas, which allows the rocket to reduce carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly-sized spacecraft being developed elsewhere around the world.  

A single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket is predicted to produce 96 per cent fewer carbon emissions than systems using fossil fuels, and the rocket is also re-usable and has been engineered to leave zero debris on Earth or in orbit. 

Orbex’s commitment to minimizing environmental damage has extended to transplanting peat lifted during the spaceport’s construction to repair large areas of peatland that have degraded over centuries. 

The Herald:

Orbex Forres base 

Dorothy Pritchard, Chair of Melness Crofters’ Estate, said: “We're starting to see the physical representation of a dream that began several years ago.  

“This is our way of regenerating this community and reversing population decline, by giving families a reason to stay or come back to this area.  

“The fact that we’re doing this while safeguarding the environment is something we’re all very proud of. I can't wait to see the first launch.”  

Richard Lochhead, Scottish Government Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade, said: “It is an incredibly exciting time for the space sector, with the first orbital launch from UK soil expected to take place in Scotland later this year.  

“Despite our relatively small country, Scotland plays a leading role in the space sector and we are well placed to become Europe’s leading space nation by 2030. 

"As I told Parliament last week, the Scottish space sector is opening up new frontiers.”