Shetland Islands to house nation’s first rocket launch pad | UK | News

A tiny island which is home to under 700 people will enter 2024 with a view of writing its name into the history books. SaxaVord Spaceport, on the island of Unst, which is part of the Scottish Shetland Islands, has been awarded a new licence by the Civil Aviation Authority.

This new permission is huge news for the small community as it will be the UK’s first spaceport for vertical rocket launches, with the first set to blast off in 2024.

It’ll be the first fully-licensed spaceport for western Europe given the green light to launch vertically into orbit. Earlier this year Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit space launch was unsuccessful after a fault with the aircraft created a “domino” effect.

This took off from Cornwall in what was hailed as a first of its kind for the UK – albeit, the craft was an aeroplane which would conduct a standard horizontal take-off, with small rockets being fired from under its wings.

While Cornwall Spaceport became the UK’s first licensed spaceport, SaxaVord’s licence allows it to host vertical launches rather than horizontal launches of rockets carried by aircraft.


But Unst is set to trump this with up to 30 launches being able to go ahead per year – the first of which will be to launch satellites and paywalls into the outer orbit.

It’s hoped a German rocket company called Hylmpulse will be first in line to attempt sub-orbital launches. This term is defined as a flight which will not get high enough to reach outer space.

It’s thought this may happen from August 2024, with full orbital launches from SaxaVord expected to take place from 2025 – although no concrete date has been set.

Mock-up pictures showing how vertical launches would look from Unst depict the rocket pad itself being in an isolated, rural area, with the sea surrounding it. It’s not known if or where any public viewing platforms will be placed nearby.

Tim Johnson, director of space regulation at the CAA, said: “Granting SaxaVord their licence is an era-defining moment for the UK space sector. This marks the beginning of a new chapter for UK space as rockets may soon launch satellites into orbit from Scotland.

“We are undertaking vital work to make sure the UK’s space activities are safe and sustainable for all.”

Mr Strang said the award of the licence is “historic”, adding: “Our team is very proud that the Government has entrusted us with operating a complex, multi-disciplinary and multi-launch spaceport, and we all take this responsibility very seriously.

“There is much to do still but this is a fantastic way to end the year and head into Christmas.” He and his wife took over the former RAF base in 2004. They also have plans for a hotel and visitor centre at SaxaVord.

Both the UK and Scottish governments welcomed the news of the licence. UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “The United Kingdom’s space industry is growing, with SaxaVord set for lift-off to become this country’s first vertical spaceport.

“Today’s historic announcement will boost Shetland’s economy and put the United Kingdom at the forefront of spaceflight innovation.”

The Scottish Government’s innovation minister Richard Lochhead said: “This milestone heralds a new era for space in Scotland.

“As the UK’s first licensed vertical spaceport, SaxaVord and Scotland can soon be a gateway to space, deploying cutting-edge small satellites into orbit for international and domestic customers alike.”

For those who haven’t heard of Unst, the island is the most northerly inhabited in the UK – and it takes a fair trek to reach it. Travellers need to get to Toft on Shetland’s Mainland first, before catching a ferry to Ulsta in Yell, a journey time of 15 minutes.

But getting to Unst still requires more miles – 18 in fact – as guests need to reach the north east of the island to catch another 10 minute ferry onto it.

According to its 2011, the 46 square mile island had 632 people living on it – a sharp drop from around 700 10 years prior. While the conception from an outsider is that people living there are isolated, locals disagree.

It’s been widely reported that the island has a variety of job offerings, a reliable and regular ferry service and decent amenities for its residents.