THE deputy CEO of a major space agency operating from the Shetland Islands has said he hopes the space sector can play a role in helping form a closer relationship with mainland Scotland.

SaxaVord, based in Unst on the northern tip of the islands, is developing a vertical launch spaceport.

Deputy CEO Scott Hammond told The National he is keen to market the business as a “European spaceport” given they have clients from Germany, Poland, France and Turkey.

‘Location, location, location’

Part of what makes SaxaVord such an attractive proposition for clients launching satellites or wanting to gather data is its location.

“For SaxaVord what’s so important is location, location, location”, Hammond explains.

“If you look at the spaceport being built in Sutherland, they can’t go directly into orbit because they have the Faroe Islands in the way so they have to kick off to one side and then kick back.

“When anyone launches something, it can’t be done too close to population centres or fly over them so we are in the perfect place.

“Because we launch north we don’t fly over any population centres. There is basically nothing between us and the Arctic so that’s really important.”

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SaxaVord bosses have confirmed that the first rocket launch could blast off in October or November this year.

It comes after Spaceport Cornwall attempted a horizontal satellite launch earlier in January.

The rocket left the wing of Virgin Orbit’s 747 jet although it failed to deliver its payload to orbit due to an “anomaly” in the second stage.

Hammond expects the launch could have an impact on tourism in the Shetland Islands.

“It’s incredible how this industry excites people.”

Long-term impact

The new spaceport sits on what used to be part of the RAF base and is well positioned for launches which go from pole to pole.

The Shetland Islands had the second lowest population when compared with all 32 council areas in Scotland, according to recent figures. 

By being a hub for such a highly-skilled industry, Hammond hopes it will make the area more attractive for people either coming to the area or for youngsters to return after completing a space-related degree.

Hammond explained: “It will be a slow burn as it’s a new industry so we need time to get people trained and universities are starting to come round to that.

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“If you look at Unst, it has a population of about 600. That used to be in the region of 900-1200 with the RAF which provided jobs but they left a while ago which was a massive hit to the economy.

“This is an opportunity to grow. There will be lots of side benefits in terms of tourism and in the long-term it will encourage young people who leave for jobs to stay.

“It won’t happen overnight but everyone will benefit. For example, we have high speed internet in Unst now and part of the business case for that was the spaceport. We’ve been able to improve the roads as well.

“If you talk to locals, they’ll say that if we bring another family up, that means the school doesn’t close. You maintain a teacher.

“I think across the next 10 or 20 years you will see a change being brought to the island.”

Maintaining relationships

Simply by virtue of its location, Shetland is isolated from the rest of mainland Scotland but Hammond believes the space industry can help the area forge a closer connection.

With Shetland serving as the launch point, this means a cycle will be created linking the islands to Scotland’s major cities.

Hammond explained: “You have the small satellites being built in Glasgow and they come up here to be launched.

“You have companies building a rocket in Edinburgh so it’s all tied together. We might have a client who asks for some data but they don’t care how they get it.

“We can get the satellite from Glasgow, the rocket from Edinburgh, launch it from Shetland and then send the data back. Everything is done in Scotland and it’s seamless. Having that whole value chain is a real benefit.”

All of this leaves Hammond feeling optimistic not just for Shetland’s future but for Scotland more broadly.

Asked if the country can fulfil its ambition of becoming Europe’s leading space nation, he said: “Yes. I bang on about how what we’re doing will help Scotland to punch well above its weight in the space industry.

“We won’t be able to compete with America given our population but we can do it with other nations.”