Shetlands spaceport that hopes to launch 30 rockets a year given crucial safety licence

By John Mercury April 25, 2024

A spaceport that hopes to launch the first rockets vertically into orbit from British soil has been given a crucial safety licence.

SaxaVord Spaceport, which is on the northern tip of the Shetland Islands, will be allowed to clear and control a hazard area downrange of the launchpad to reduce the risks to aircraft and shipping.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which has responsibility for regulating space launches, said it was satisfied that the spaceport operator can provide what it called “range-control services”, keeping people out of the danger zone and safely monitoring the progress of a rocket in flight.

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UK’s first vertical rockets to launch in 2024

It’s a significant legal milestone.

The CAA has already given SaxaVord a licence for its ground operations.

Colin Macleod, head of UK space regulation at the CAA, said the licence was vital for protecting public safety before and during launches.

“It’s a remote location with a relatively narrow range for launching northwards,” he said.

“The size [of the safety zone] will depend on the size of the rocket and how likely it is to fail, as well as the trajectory. The time of day can also affect how much traffic is there.”

The spaceport hopes to launch 30 rockets each year. Its position on the northern tip of the UK makes it ideal for putting satellites and other payloads into an orbit that passes over the north and south poles.

The last piece of the regulatory jigsaw ahead of the first launch will be a licence for the rocket manufacturer.

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The SaxaVord spaceport in Unst. Pic: SaxaVord
The SaxaVord spaceport in Unst. Pic: SaxaVord
The SaxaVord spaceport. Pics: SaxaVord

Seven companies have applied to the CAA for approval.

German companies HyImpulse and Rocket Factory Augsburg are hoping to launch ‘sub-orbital’ rockets that don’t quite reach outer space later this year.

Larger rockets carrying satellites into orbit are likely to be launched from SaxaVord in 2025.

Sky News was recently given rare access to Skyrora’s factory near Glasgow, where one such rocket is rapidly taking shape.

Frank Strang and his wife  Debbie own the SaxaVord spaceport on Unst. Pic: SaxaVord
Frank Strang and his wife Debbie own the SaxaVord spaceport. Pic: SaxaVord

‘We are now preparing to make more space history’

Frank Strang, CEO of SaxaVord Spaceport, said: “Satisfying such a crucial piece of the regulatory process affords everyone the comfort that we will always operate in a safe and proper manner under the watchful eye of the regulator.

“As Western Europe’s only fully licenced vertical launch spaceport, we are now preparing to make more space history with the beginning of orbital launch operations well under way.”

SaxaVord will be the UK’s second launch site.

Spaceport Cornwall was the first licensed operator, but was built on the premise of using aircraft to carry rockets aloft from Cornwall Airport Newquay. Its one and only launch so far, by Virgin Orbit, ended in failure.

Spaceport Sutherland, on the Scottish mainland, is also under construction.


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