Highlands & Islands

Hebrides rocket launch: The space milestone we almost missed

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Media captionThe American Terrier-Orion two-stage rocket left an MOD base in the Western Isles

Scotland has scored another first in space.

A rocket from the Hebrides missile range in the Western Isles has become the first vehicle to be launched into space from UK soil.

But the achievement almost went unnoticed.

It happened in October during an international military exercise in the Atlantic.

The aim of At Sea Demonstration 15 was to test the ability of warships to defend themselves against incoming missiles.

One of the those incoming target missiles was an American Terrier-Orion two-stage rocket which was launched from the Hebrides missile range in the Western Isles.

Image copyright QinetiQ
Image caption The rocket was launched from a military range in the Hebrides

Playing the part of a ballistic missile, it soared high over the North Atlantic, so becoming the first space vehicle to lift-off from UK soil and leave the Earth's atmosphere.

Until now every UK space shot has had to go abroad to be launched.

It was an exercise which achieved several firsts in military technology. But this milestone passed almost unmarked. The point was to stop the missile coming down, not watch it go up.

What's more the Terrier-Orion will never appear in a museum because it was blown to bits over the Atlantic by the US Navy's guided missile destroyer USS Ross.

'Family croft'

For Dr Malcolm Macdonald, of Strathclyde University and director of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, the milestone has brought particular pleasure, not least that it was launched from the Hebrides Range.

"Probably the least-heralded event of 2015 is that an object was sent into space from the UK," he says.

"Also, that's where my family croft was, according to our family history.

"It'd be great to see some real spacecraft going up into orbit from Scotland."

That may happen next. The news emerged as six sites are vying to become the UK's first commercial spaceport, four of them in Scotland.

Image copyright Reaction Engines
Image caption There are plans to create a spaceport in the UK

A conference organised by the Royal Aeronautical Society is hearing from six sites hoping to be the chosen by the UK as a spaceport.

They are the airports at Prestwick, Campbeltown and Stornoway, the former RAF base at Leuchars in Fife, Newquay airport in Cornwall and Llanbedr airport in the Snowdonia National Park.

Here the emphasis will be on horizontal launches, such as those achieved by the Virgin Galactic project.

There's more to that than space tourism. Virgin Galactic are preparing to test a launcher which could put small satellites into orbit from a Boeing 747.

'Plastic alien'

And former Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn says the tourism spin-offs are not to be sniffed at.

"People will come to see space launches," he says.

"Would somebody go to Machrihanish to see a rocket launch?

"Well, people go to Cape Canaveral to see rockets launched.

"They even go to Roswell, New Mexico, to see a plastic alien because they're so interested in space."

Image copyright AP
Image caption A rocket goes up from Cape Canaveral in Florida

It is worth bearing in mind that Scotland is pretty good at this space business already. It's reckoned our space industry already supports five and a half thousand, mostly highly-skilled, jobs.

In 2014, Ukube-1 became the first Scottish-built satellite to go into orbit.

Does today's news mean the Hebrides Missile Range could host a space launch site?

QinetiQ, who run it for the UK Ministry of Defence, say they have no plans to use it as a commercial spaceport.

But they do stress they have the expertise to support a spaceport anywhere in the UK.

And a feasibility study is under way for a commercial vertical launch facility near Tongue in Sutherland.

Could Scotland boldly go? We already have.

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