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Commercial space launch conducted between a British company and a Scottish spaceport team at Benbecula Airport

Iain Stephen Morrison

26th August 2021 saw an historic UK first, with a commercial rocket launch conducted between British firm, Gravitilab, and Scottish spaceport team, Spaceport 1, in the Outer Hebrides.

Spaceport 1, set to be established on North Uist, collaborated with East Anglian company Gravitilab on the sub-orbital launch of a flight test vehicle called ADA, named after Ada Lovelace, the nineteenth century English mathematician considered the first computer programmer.

However, while ADA did launch at 1.30pm, the rocket did not reach the target height, falling short some 5000 feet in what was described a ‘safe fail’. It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the launch what caused ADA to return to earth sooner than anticipated, but technicians were certain the fault was technical.

Launch of the vehicle at Benbecula Airport comes weeks after a new framework of government rules to regulate the space industry came into force and the UK set to be thrust into the global forefront of the growing space sector, meaning not only spaceport developments can be realised, but space launches can become a reality.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is developing Spaceport 1 at Scolpaig Farm on North Uist in partnership with organisations including Hebrides Range operator QinetiQ. Am Pàipear reported earlier this year that the Spaceport 1 consortium is in talks with ten potential customers about rocket launches from the proposed facility at Scolpaig.

Customers include universities and commercial companies who wish to launch small vehicles for scientific, research and development or test and evaluation purposes.

Mark Roberts, Programme Director for Spaceport 1, explained to Am Pàipear that for the team leading on the development for North Uist, the purpose of the exercise was to learn.

“In essence we had to take control of the area, make sure there was nobody that could be put in harm’s way, and manage communications with all stakeholders. So from the point of view of Spaceport 1, despite the fact the vehicle did a safe but failed launch, from our perspective, it was great. We have learnt a lot over the last couple of days, particularly around managing stakeholders.

“We made it more difficult for ourselves, because we had to fit in around airport operations which had priority, and that added to the complexity of what we had to deal with for this operation, and all of that is a really good foundation for us moving forward to other vehicles and, in due course, the location at Scolpaig.

“I am looking at a rather despondent launch team at the moment, but from a Spaceport 1 perspective, I am actually quite happy. I happened and it happened safely,” added Mr Roberts.

North Uist is described as an ideal location for the spaceport development as both sun synchronous and polar orbital launches are considered achievable from the proposed site and the existing capabilities and technology at Hebrides Range would benefit operations and reduce the capital cost of a potential spaceport at Scolpaig.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar submitted an application for planning permission for the first phase of works to be undertaken on the proposed site of the spaceport in the summer of 2019. It is anticipated that an amendment to the initial application will be submitted later in 2021.

Earlier this year Spaceport 1 was listed with the ‘Heads of Terms’ document signed to formalise the Islands Deal, a multimillion pound government investment in the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles.