As plans for the UK's first spaceport take shape, opposition grows

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By Jonathan Mitchell
As plans for the UK's first spaceport take shape, opposition grows

Trekking through the muddy peat bog on the A'Mhoine peninsula on the remote north coast of Scotland, it seems hard to imagine that within a couple of years, that this remote, beautiful, wetland landscape could be the UK's first spaceport, launching small satellites into the lucrative polar orbit.

When the news was announced in the summer of 2018, many giggled at the prospect of this small community of crofters (farmers) being host to something so high-tech as a spaceport. Some called it 'Rockets Galore' after the famous film 'Whisky Galore' - in which Hebridean Islanders unexpectedly benefit from a ship running aground with a cargo of whisky.

Plans became more concrete in early August 2019, when ORBEX (the company behind the venture) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and the Melness Crofters Estate (MCE) signed a 75 year lease for £70,000 a year, plus a small percentage of the money from every launch.

An environmental assessment is underway and construction is planned for 2020, pending the go-ahead from the Highland Council planning department in December 2019. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) say rockets could be up to 30 metres high and are expected to launch multiple satellite payloads into the sought-after polar orbit. Estimates indicate the A'Mhoine spaceport could launch some 2,000 satellites (many of them micro-satellites) by 2030 - making it potentially an important resource for the European Space Agency. HIE consultants say that the site could launch 40 rockets a year.

HIE announced in early October the full plans for the site called 'Space Hub Sutherland' - the proposed project will cost some £17.3 million (around €18 million) and will cover around 800 acres (around 300 hectares). Infrastructure on the site will include an antenna farm, control centre, rocket assembly facility, launchpad complex, launch towers and security fencing.

As the plans take shape, some locals in this sleepy, quiet coastal community — which has more sheep than people — are protesting about the proposed spaceport over environmental and various other concerns. Some protesters argue that the financial and environmental aspects of the plans are as murky as the peat bogs of the A'Mhoine peninsula.

"They [those wanting to build the spaceport] have been engaged in a cynical exercise of omission, deception and economy with the truth," says Alastair Gow, a 73 year-old retired science teacher from Edinburgh, one of the leaders of the protest group against the spaceport called 'Protect The Mhoine'.

Gow points out that he is opposed to the spaceport mostly over environmental concerns and that the money from launches will end up in wealthier crofter's pockets rather than benefiting the local community. He refers to the Melness Crofters Estate as the 'Melness Mafia' and claims they lack transparency in their dealings with ORBEX and the HIE. Other residents of the villages of Melness, Talmine and hereabouts fear that their quiet rural existence will be compromised.

"We don't want to loose any blanket bog...In light of the current climate emergency. It is four times better at absorbing carbon than the rainforest," Gow said.

He also points out that the A'Mhoine peninsula is a fragile ecosystem and that the site of the spaceport is near Strath Melness Burn, which is an Atlantic salmon spawning ground. Indeed, a large swath of this boggy terrain in the north of Scotland has been labelled 'Flow Country' and is being reviewed for UN World Heritage Site status this December, possible gaining that title in January 2020.

Other concerns are emissions from the rockets, which Gow says are going to use Hydrogen Peroxide and Hydrazine (which is highly toxic), the effect of the concrete on the peat bog (from the alkaline in the concrete). Peat bogs can also catch fire and are very difficult to extinguish. In 2018, during the early summer UK drought, thousands and thousands of hectares of this kind of peat bog caught fire, most notably at Saddleworth Moor in Yorkshire, but also locally to the tune of 8,000 hectares at nearby Durness.

Euronews contacted ORBEX for a response to the claims by Protect The Mhoine, though received no response.

Not all residents oppose the spaceport though. Crofter and odd-job man, Joseph Sutherland, 53, from Talmine, is in favour of the plans.

"I can't see any bad in it...It's alright by me," he says. 

He adds that the potential environmental problems do not worry him. "I don't see what [harm] a few rockets a year will do," he says.

"It will be good for the [local] shops and businesses," Mr Sutherland says, adding that the spaceport will bring more much-needed jobs and more tourism to the area. Plus, he says, the improved roads would relieve congestion on the single lane road which runs through Melness and Talmine.

While Gow begs to differ, he says his campaign is to force the powerful forces behind the spaceport to guarantee environmental safeguards for the ecology of the A'Mhoine peninsula.

"Initially, I was for this project...But as soon as you look into it, it's clear the lies and deception taking place," he says.

So while rockets galore have led to local divisions galore, there may be steps that those pushing for the construction of the facility could take to reassure locals who oppose it.

For Alastair Gow, transparency is the issue: "If they can give us guarantees that the environment will be protected, then I'd certainly be more interested in listening to them."