SUTHERLAND’s north coast is in line for a jobs bonanza if a bid to locate a £17 million commercial space centre there is approved, the north’s senior economic development manager has indicated.
Up to 150 “direct” jobs would be created with a spin-off to other sectors including the tourist industry, according to Roy Kirk, Highlands and Islands Enterprise area manager for Caithness and Sutherland.
The United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) is expected to decide shortly on where best to site the futuristic centre – which will see satellites vertically blasted into space on the back of 20-metre long rockets.
Other locations under consideration are at Unst in Shetland and Scalpaig, North Uist.
The first rocket launch could take place at the chosen site in as little as two to three years.
Mr Kirk gave a presentation on the project to Sutherland councillors at a meeting in Drummuie this week.
He said: “We do believe that this is a big opportunity for north Sutherland to attract people into the area and to create jobs as well as apprenticeships and training opportunities.”
However, councillors warned that public safety, the environment – the site is in a national scenic area – and engagement with local communities must be top priorities should the space project go any further.
Britain is a world leader in the construction of satellites but most are launched overseas and the Westminster government is now keen to add value to the industry by constructing launch sites.
A growth in the market is also expected in the next 10 years with communications companies looking to launch “constellations” of satellites to provide worldwide broadband.
A Space Bill is currently going through Parliament in order to provide a regulatory framework for the industry.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise commissioned a survey a year ago into the suitability of the remote Moine Peninsula, between Durness and Tongue, for the facility. The area of land forms part of the Melness Crofting Estate.
Mr Kirk said the site had geographical advantages in that it was on the mainland but that rockets could be launched over the sea.
A 3km access road would have to be built off the A836 and the facility would comprise a concrete launch pad, fuel store, control room and building in which the rocket could be assembled.
He said: “This is not Cape Canaveral or French Guyana or any other large facility. It is a modest, fit-for-purpose facility that will allow low Earth orbit 500km in the sky.”
He described the operation as an “excellent fit” with the area, particularly in the light of the decommissioning of Dounreay and its shedding of skilled workers.
He said: “We believe that around 150 direct jobs in Sutherland and Caithness could come from this project and that other projects could follow on from it, creating indirect jobs. If there was a launch facility in Sutherland it would be a major tourist attraction.
“We also believe that work associated with the rocket launches could be brought into the Highlands.
“At the moment the satellites are integrated onto the rockets in Oxford and Southampton. These types of opportunities could be brought to the Highlands.”
Mr Kirk said there was still a long way to go before the project was in the bag.
As well as UKSA approval, Highland Council would have to give planning consent.
HIE would then have to source £17 million capital funding – with space agencies, HIE and other public agencies expected to foot the Bill. A launch site operator would also have to be appointed.
Mr Kirk added: “There are still a number of risks to this project going ahead but it is advancing positively.”
Responding to a query from Councillor Hugh Morrison, North West and Central Sutherland, Mr Kirk said to date there had been little public consultation about the facility but public meetings would be held if it progressed.
Sutherland county committee chairwoman Linda Munro was concerned about the environment.
She said: “It is a beautiful environment and we do not want to spoil that in any way but this development can be conducive to nature.”
She added: “I relish the idea that our children could grow up with the expectation of an apprenticeship in science, technology and maths. Dounreay apprentices went throughout the world and were respected and valued. This project may again give our young people the opportunity to be global players.”
Councillor Kirsteen Currie said public safety had to be paramount.