Some Questions & Answers

The following section answers some of the more pertinent questions that people interested in Shetland Space Centre – both from the community and further afield – have been asking. It is not exhaustive, and we will be able to clarify some of the points as the project develops and when detailed regulations are introduced by the UK Space Agency.

Firstly, it is worth stating the very strong reasons why Lamba Ness is the ideal site for launching small rockets with relatively small satellite payloads into space. Geography is all-important. Shetland Space Centre’s clients will primarily be deploying small rockets that will be launched into either polar or sun-synchronous, low-earth orbits. Polar orbit simply means that the trajectory of the satellite is over both the North and South poles. Sun-synchronous orbits are also polar, or nearly polar, but ahead of the sunrise, allowing a satellite’s solar panels to function continuously. Higher latitudes are best for launches into these orbits.

Launches from Unst will take place in a northerly direction over the sea. For safety reasons, rockets will not be permitted to fly over inhabited areas. Rocket launches from Lamba Ness would avoid both oil fields to the west and east of Shetland; they would also avoid the Faroe Islands to the north-west. That is not the case for alternative sites in Scotland. Also, transatlantic air traffic over Unst is meagre, which would mean little or no re-routing, unlike other sites, and there are no Royal Navy or RAF training ranges close by, again unlike other sites.

The no-overfly rule does not preclude launches from other sites, but rockets would have to alter their trajectories in mid-flight (known as dog-legs) to comply. Such manoeuvres would require larger rockets and smaller payloads, with consequences for the economics of each launch.

Growth in demand for meteorological, telecommunications, earth observation and GNSS (position, navigation and timing) satellite services has led to rapid growth and diversification within the space industry and a marked shift from state to private provision. In the UK the industry is worth more than £16bn (annual growth exceeds three per cent) and comprises around 1,000 companies and organisations. Glasgow produces more satellites than any other European city. However, the missing link in the UK is launch capability. SSC was founded to fill that gap.


Lamba Ness site

What are the names and sizes of the rockets the Spaceport is being designed for?

Shetland Space Centre proposes to launch small rockets, rather than the large rockets that you might have seen being launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral or Ariane from French Guiana. The height of the rockets that it is envisaged will be taking off from Lamba Ness will be between 14m and 30m. Their width will be 1-2m. These rockets will not have additional boosters at the sides.

By comparison, SpaceX’s biggest rocket, the Falcon 9, is 70m tall, and the Ariane 5 is 52m tall. For historical reference, the US Space Shuttle and main booster rocket was 56m tall. To give some local context, the rockets for Unst will be shorter than the telecommunications mast on the Heogs in Baltasound (35m) and considerably shorter than the hub height of the wind turbines at Garth in Yell (44m), whose tip height is 114m.

We will be making public announcements on the names of the specific rockets for Unst in conjunction with our clients shortly, well in advance of submission of the full planning application. UCC has been briefed several times on the names of the companies that have expressed an interest in launching from Unst. They remain fully committed and contract negotiations are ongoing but until agreements are finalised the full details must remain confidential.

Most significantly, we have a major commitment from an international aerospace company that is being supported by government to carry out the first vertical rocket launch from UK soil in 2021. Unfortunately, SSC is unable to go public about this because all government communications efforts are currently being devoted to Covid-19. It is very frustrating as all parties want to announce their participation and engage locally, including setting up job fairs. We are not avoiding the question as we are keen to answer it, but our hands are tied. From the information that we have been given, we would anticipate being able to go public within the next few weeks.


What is the internationally recognised Launch Safety Zone for those rockets?

There is no internationally agreed launch safety zone. Each individual country defines its own limits. For SSC, this will be determined by the UK Government and will be specific to individual rockets. At this time, we are not able to give precise figures because ministers have yet to publish the legislation that will spell out in detail how spaceports will be regulated. The physical extent and duration of operation of exclusion zones will be a significant part of this legislation.

The UK Space Agency had intended to publish a draft of this secondary legislation, which will underpin the Space Industry Act 2018, at the end of April this year but because of Covid-19 this has been delayed. When the draft regulations have been published, it is understood there will be a 12-week industry and public consultation period following which the UKSA will finalise the regulations and put them before Parliament for approval. The UKSA’s stated target is for these to be in place by the beginning of 2021.

To help us with our planning, however, we have taken the most extreme case and applied the rules imposed by the Federal Aviation Authority in the United States and based on these we are very confident that from where we have sited the launch pads there will be no risk to people, animals or buildings. It is worth emphasising that a licence will not be granted to any spaceport unless it complies fully with all the regulations. Safety will always be the No.1 priority.

There will be no disruption to people in their homes and nobody will be required to evacuate their houses anywhere in Unst at any point due to any SSC activity.


Are the three separate Launch Pads for individual companies?

In order to build a sustainable business SSC has always believed that the spaceport should support different launch companies, each with a different rocket payload capacity. When comparing payload capacities, the general rule of thumb is what payload can be carried to a sun-synchronous orbit of 500km. SSC is looking to accommodate payload capacities from approximately 600kg down to 30kg. The plan is for the larger rockets to be on the furthest east pads and the smaller ones to the west. Therefore, the answer is yes, we plan for each company to have its own pad. However, we are promoting the concept of universal launch pads for the future.


What is the scientific assessment with regard to dangers to residents of Unst (or those at sea) when the rockets fall back to earth?

There will be no danger to Unst residents. The rockets will have either two or three stages and they will fly to the north, away from the island. As noted above, these rockets will not have side boosters. The stages and fairings (the top, or pointy part of the rocket) will fall back to the ocean, many kilometres to the north of Unst, in some cases up to 1,100km away. It is possible to predict where they will come down and appropriate measures will be taken to eliminate danger. The UK Government is in talks with Norway, Faroe and Iceland on agreements to allow stages to fall in international waters. This is common practice within the space industry.

The logic behind having stages is that it reduces the total amount of fuel required to launch into orbit. If a rocket only had one stage, it would have to be very large to contain enough fuel. As the rocket rose to orbit, at some point the majority of the stage would be empty of fuel but it would still have to carry the extra mass of the large stage. Therefore, by breaking the rocket into stages this extra mass can be jettisoned, thus reducing the overall mass of the rocket and reducing the amount of fuel required. The same logic is used for the fairings. These are initially required to protect the payload from aerodynamic forces, but once the rocket has reached the upper atmosphere, they become dead weight and are jettisoned.


What safety measures are to be put in place for evacuation in the event of a rocket launch disaster/failure?

There is nothing more important to SSC than the health, safety and welfare of the Unst community. Many of the safety regulations that will be applicable to the spaceport already exist, e.g. the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 2015. SSC will ensure that all of our operations comply with current and future government legislation. This will be a minimum requirement of the licence that we are required to secure from the UKSA to allow us to operate. Given the small size of the rockets, and therefore fuel and payload, no evacuation of Unst will ever be required.


What will happen to the residents and properties within the zone including those in Norwick, Saxa Vord, Burrafirth and Haroldswick (outlined on the CAA consultation map)?

The zone that is shown on the CAA website has been set by SSC and is an indication of where an airspace (i.e. above ground) change may be required. It does not relate to safety or impact on residents. The Airspace Change Process is a technical CAA requirement and is wholly separate from the planning process.


Will there be any Compulsory Purchase Orders?

There will be no requirement or reason for Compulsory Purchase Orders.


How many launches a year are projected?

It is anticipated that when the spaceport is fully operational, there will be up to 30 rocket launches per year. The launches will be very short in duration, around 20 seconds. It is likely to be several years before this number of launches is achieved. Launches may take place during the day or night.


Will they be taking place in spring/summer during the bird-nesting season?

We are taking specialist advice as to the potential impact on all wildlife, including birds, and every effort will be made to mitigate any likely adverse disruption, such as planning launches outwith the nesting season if necessary. This is a fundamental part of the Environmental Impact Assessment that we are carrying out and that will be submitted as part of our full planning application. We fully intend to create an environmental exemplar and show how space and the environment can live in complete harmony, as they do elsewhere, e.g. the nature reserve just north of Cape Canaveral in Florida which is home to hundreds of species of birds, including protected species.


What evidence does SSC have that the Lamba Ness site is geologically stable enough to sustain rocket launches without risk of earthquake, especially with the existing subsidence in Norwick?

The preliminary investigations that we have carried out indicate that given the small size of the rockets and the geology and topography of Lamba Ness there is no risk of an earthquake or subsidence being caused by any launch. A full ground investigation will be carried out to ratify this. It will be published in full as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment that will be submitted as part of our full planning application.


After launch, when the rocket boosters drop back to Earth in the sea around Unst to be reused, how long will the exclusion last until people are free to move around in those areas again?

The rockets that will be launched from Unst will not have any boosters. The spent stages will fall back to earth in the ocean well to the north of Unst, in some cases up to 1,100km away. Therefore, once the rockets have cleared the relatively small exclusion zone around the launch site people will be free to move around again immediately within those areas as normal.


Will the “RAF Skaw” buildings and structures be demolished? Will the site be closed to people wanting to look at those?

Depending on the outcome of the consultation process, some of the smaller red brick buildings may be demolished but the majority of the RAF Skaw buildings and all the bunkers on the site will remain. The site will not be closed for people to visit. There are plans to create a small interpretation centre with virtual imagery showing how RAF Skaw looked during the war years. It is hoped that this will add value to the Skaw visitor experience.


Will the site be off-limits at all times? E.g. will it be open to walkers who want to walk the coastline of Unst?

The site will be open to all walkers and visitors at all times other than during notified launch days or launch rehearsals when it will be closed for a few hours only. Once the rocket has launched and clears the site it will be re-opened for all to walk on as normal.  However, as noted above, we will have to wait for the specific UK regulations to be published to determine what the duration will be for SSC.

Temporary restrictions will have to be put in place for health and safety reasons during the construction period. This would form part of a submitted Site Construction Management Plan and would be the subject of an appropriately worded planning condition.

As part of the development we intend to build a specialist hide at the tip of Lamba Ness so that people can shelter and look at the wildlife, and an all-abilities path along the road to improve access for walkers.


Road access

Why are public road improvements required?

The road down to Lamba Ness is in a state of dilapidation. For obvious reasons this needs to be repaired. There are places where the existing road may need straightened or the verge widened and any improvements will benefit both tourist and local traffic.


Is it something to do with the size and weight of the vehicles that will be using them?

The size of the vehicles being used by SSC will be no larger than vehicles already using the roads or that have used the road in the past. The rockets themselves are very light.


How much will Road Improvements cost?

We anticipate this will be in the region of £3m.


Who will be paying for this, the SIC or Private Investors?

SSC has included the cost of road improvements in its own budget and expects to fund them.


Fuel/Baltasound Airport

How will the rocket fuel be transported to (and through) Unst?

Almost all of the rockets planned for Unst will use RP-1 (rocket propellant) which is a highly refined form of kerosene, similar to aviation fuel and thus not toxic. Other rockets will use versions of paraffin. We are also working very closely with several rocket companies that are developing and championing green fuels to power their launch vehicles.

The regulations already exist for transportation, such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002. You can expect the rocket fuel to be transported in fuel tankers very similar to those supplying petrol to the Final Check Out or heating oil to homes. This is entirely normal and safe.


What is to be stored at the Baltasound Airstrip – liquid rocket fuel or chemicals?

Liquid rocket fuel as described above. The quantities stored by SSC will be much lower than what was stored on a daily basis at Baltasound in the past by both the RAF and Chevron.


Is there a Safety Exclusion Zone around the Fuel Storage Area(s), and if so what size will this be?

Any safety exclusion zone will adhere to regulations such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002. This will look very similar to what was previously at Baltasound. The fence will be replaced/repaired and there will be control of access.


What are the UKSA’s regulations governing such storage and transportation?

The UKSA will expect SSC to adhere to all of the existing regulations such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002. This happens on a daily and weekly basis in Unst at the moment with fuels and chemicals being moved to garages, fish farms and other sites. The use and movement of fuels in any sector of the economy is rightly very tightly regulated, and these regulations are much more stringent than they were in the past.


Are the fuel storage facilities still fit for purpose? – when were they last used – are there safety certificates – will they need to be tested again?

We intend to replace the current fuel storage facilities at Baltasound with new equipment that complies with current legislation. As such they will be tested and accredited on a regular basis.


What are the procedures if there should be an accidental leak?

As previously noted, health, safety and welfare of people in Unst is our top priority. SSC will adhere to all of the current regulations such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and, the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 2015. These regulations dictate procedures in the unlikely event of any leak, but are primarily focused on preventing leakage in the first place.


How will Fuel be stored safely here on the island?

As described above SSC will adhere to all current regulations. We would like to re-emphasise that the amount of fuel will be markedly less than it was previously in Unst.


What are the implications for houses near the Airport?

There will be no implications for surrounding houses. The airport supported 350,000 passengers a year in the 1990s with hundreds of flights both fixed wing and rotary. The SSC will be storing a fraction of the quantity of fuels of those times but is hoping to encourage both limited tourist and business flights as well as lifeline emergency service use of the airfield. This will bring both employment and opportunity, but the airport will not be as busy as it was in the past.


Will the Airport road be closed for fuel transportation?



Will the proximity of a fuel depot change our insurance (residents near to airport or on main route north to Lamba Ness)?

Given that the fuel depot has been there for many years and the amount being stored will be less than previously this is highly unlikely.


What restrictions will be in place if toxic fuels are to be transported through the community?

There will be no restrictions. The transportation of fuel, which as described previously is similar to aviation fuel and kerosene, will look very similar to a fuel tanker supplying the Final Check Out or Skibhoul Stores, or delivering oil to residences and businesses.


Are there other implications for these households on the route from the Airport to Lamba Ness?



Will some fuel be supplied from the island’s own Pure Energy Centre?

The Pure Energy Centre is an Unst success story and is a leader in its field. PEC capabilities along with those of many other Shetland companies have been shown to all potential launch providers and they have all been very impressed. It is hoped that PEC can be involved, along with as many local companies as possible.


Emergency Services

What implications will this have for our Fire Brigade? What provision is proposed?

We are awaiting the publication by the UKSA of their draft regulations to see if any additional fire requirements will need to be put in place. However, given the relatively small size of the rockets and the fuel required we do not anticipate any particular additional requirements. We do believe there will be an opportunity for the local Fire Brigade to provide specialist skills and services to support the initiative if that were of interest.


Will we need a police presence back on the island?

The site will be classed as critical national infrastructure by the government and as such will have to comply with regulations similar to those in place for Sullom Voe. We have been in dialogue with the police and at the moment it is not anticipated that there will be a need for a police presence but that will be reviewed regularly. If the Community Council would like to help build a case for the return of the police presence then we would be happy to help with that.



Exactly how many jobs will be created for local people? What will those be?

It is our stated commitment that where possible all jobs will be offered to locals first, then the rest of Shetland and from outwith the islands thereafter. We are also committed to ensuring that as much of the construction work as possible will be carried out by local contractors – either as prime contractor or sub-contractor. It is hugely important to us that as much of the economic benefit as possible is retained in Unst and Shetland.

We also intend to start an upskilling programme as soon as possible to help locals who want to work with SSC or support the initiative in other ways.

With regard to numbers, it is very difficult at this early stage to be specific. The perfect solution would be in a few years’ time to have skilled young Shetlanders involved in the specialist space related jobs. There is already one man from Lerwick working for Surrey Satellites, so the precedent has been set. However, in the short term there will be a requirement for full-time:

Site managers

Electrical technicians and mechanical maintenance teams


Wildlife wardens

Hospitality related staff for the hotel

Refuelling technicians

Data and systems analysts

Admin support staff

In addition we believe we will need part-time support in the following areas:

If we need to recover from the sea we will be using local based marine craft

Marine support by way of local boats to patrol the area around Lamba Ness on launch days

Locals to act as stewards on a launch days

Depending on the final UKSA regulations, access to both fire and emergency services and potential fire cover for the airport as required.


How many apprenticeships will be offered to locals?

Regarding apprenticeships there will be a scheme in place. At this stage we cannot quantify numbers, but we are committed to a policy whereby apprenticeships and internships are offered to local youngsters first.

We envisage taking on young apprentices and have held discussions with our industry partners about STEM activity. They are very supportive of this as corporate social responsibility is a very important part of their culture.

We have established relationships with five major universities and envisage young Shetland students tying into the science and technology faculties at Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Leicester universities as well as the Technical University of Munich and The University of Alaska.


What impact will this have on the current way of life and character of Unst?

We believe there will be no adverse impact or change to the current way of life in Unst and certainly no change to the character. Space is a very quiet industry and the workforce will be indoors working on the integration of the technology or working in offices. The SaxaVord site will be completely refurbished within its current footprint and other than a refurbishment of the airfield and the new build integration sheds which are no bigger than a decent sized agricultural shed the visual impacts will be minimal. We have likened it to the RAF workforce returning but not in such numbers as before.

The positive impact will be an increase in tourist footfall for 10 months of the year not just the late spring and summer, which means shops and businesses will thrive. We see an increase in the school roll which will result in more security of tenure for teaching posts and staff. We believe that the increase in business opportunity will ensure that the ferry timetable is enhanced and there may even be value in finding a way to create a fixed link. There will be a stronger case to ensure that resources are afforded to the medical centre. We are very sincere in our belief that we will see more environmental tourism not less.

With the decline of oil and gas, and a reduction in the number and scale of construction projects, the Shetland economy is currently at a low ebb. SSC will provide very tangible direct and indirect benefits not only to Unst but to the wider economy. At the first community consultation meeting at SaxaVord we were told that someone from New Zealand had visited the Heritage Centre and had mentioned the noticeable economic benefits to their community which was close to the Rocket Lab site which is very similar to Lamba Ness.

As an example of how serious we are about retaining other cultural initiatives, we are in dialogue with Shetland Arts about a joint initiative to create a series of arts residencies in Unst as part of a community initiative. This is underway and very much a work in progress.

We have also committed to setting up a Community Benefit Fund supported by a percentage of the profits as advised to UCC over a year ago. This fund will be managed by local residents and will be for spending on selected community benefit projects.


Will this speed up the rollout of fibre Broadband for Unst?

SSC was asked by the SIC to provide a strong case to help with the acceleration of the broadband programme and also to liaise with the Ministry of Defence on the same. Both of which we did. We believe that one of the early benefits to Unst will be an improvement in broadband speeds.


Environmental Impact Assessment

What impact is there to the economy, the environment, human health, wildlife, community, heritage, archaeology and culture as a whole?

As noted above, a formal EIA has been commissioned as part of the statutory process and that will provide detailed answers in each of these areas. We would not be progressing if we thought there would be any adverse impacts. There are other launch sites around the world in similarly beautiful areas to Unst, e.g. New Zealand, where the community both benefits from the jobs created and business generated  and play a role in the oversight and monitoring.


What dangers to human health and wildlife, plant life, sealife, etc. are there from the rocket fuel and noise pollution?

Again this will be addressed in the EIA but given what we have been advised by the industry and what we have seen we do not believe that there is any danger to any of these. We intend to replicate the SOTEAG (Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group) model which has been such a huge success at Sullom Voe so that there is an independent environmental watchdog overseeing our activity and advising where necessary.