Experts cast doubt over Highlands spaceport plan

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Artist's impression of spaceportImage source, HIE
Image caption,
An artist's impression of the spaceport

Doubts have been cast on the suitability of the site vying to be the location for the UK's first major spaceport.

Land on the A'Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland has been identified as a location for the launching of rockets carrying micro satellites.

The move has the backing of a £2.5m grant from the UK Space Agency.

But new research questions why a "wild land" site covered by environmental protections was chosen for the project.

Highland and Islands Enterprise and the UK Space Agency both said the support for the Sutherland site was based on rigorous assessments.

However, the research by Prof Mike Danson, of Heriot-Watt University, and Geoff Whittam, of Glasgow Caledonian University, casts doubts on claims that 40 "high-quality jobs" would be created by the scheme, suggesting "the jobs which will be available to local people have been stated as housekeeping and security".

Image source, Lockheed Martin
Image caption,
Lockheed Martin is another company involved in the Sutherland spaceport project

The academics also express concern that far from bringing jobs and prosperity to the area, the spaceport would obstruct the development of more appropriately-scaled businesses.

The paper questions the focus by Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the A'Mhoine site over others and suggests a previous report overstated the level of community support while not paying enough attention to infrastructural issues and environmental designations.

Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie said: "I hope Highlands and Islands Enterprise reflect on this important study.

"It casts doubt on the purported economic benefits that constructing the spaceport at A'Mhoine will bring and highlights that it could cause considerable environmental damage.

A spokesman for Highland and Islands Enterprise said: "The HIE board approved support for the Sutherland Spaceport following the UK Space Agency decision to support development at this site and to award research and development grant funding to two international launch companies as partners in the Sutherland project.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Spaceflight firm Orbex unveiled a new rocket earlier this year

"One of these companies has already opened a factory in Forres where it is creating jobs. This is an early sign of the economic opportunity a launch site will present for different parts of our region.

"We commissioned an independent economic impact assessment as part of our due diligence. This concluded that Space Hub Sutherland has the potential to support 40 high quality jobs locally, and 400 across our region."

Earlier this year UK-based spaceflight firm Orbex unveiled its Prime rocket, designed to take satellites to altitudes of up to 776 miles, at its new base in Moray.

It has predicted that its decision to open a mission control and design facility at the Forres Enterprise Park could create more than 130 new jobs.

A spokesman for the UK Space Agency said: "The UK government's £50m spaceflight programme is supporting a number of industry-led initiatives to build the capabilities that will launch the UK into the new space age.

"We awarded grant funding to Sutherland after conducting a rigorous assessment of 26 proposals."