Rocket launches from Sutherland could require safety measures to reduce risks to workers on North Sea oil and gas platforms – and residents of the Faroe Islands.
It has emerged that the so-called “Sceptre” report, produced by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and others, highlighted such challenges in 2017.
The study warned that “as a last resort then the population could be evacuated i.e. from North Sea Oil Rigs or small islands”, and suggested “effectively closing the area” to ships and aircraft “for the period of the launch and downrange flight”.
As it assessed potential spaceport locations, the study suggested there were three oil and gas platforms “that may be within some of the flight corridors”.
Offshore workers were not included in safety calculations, however, due to the “uncertainty regarding the minimum number of personnel required to keep a rig operational or the cost of temporarily evacuating all personnel”.
Asked about the concerns, a spokesman for HIE said the satellite launches from Sutherland “should have no impact” on oil platforms.
Trevor Stapleton, health and safety manager for industry body Oil & Gas UK, said: “The UK’s offshore oil and gas industry communicates regularly with appropriate authorities in order to maintain and improve safe operations in the marine and air environment.
“While OGUK is yet to be approached on this specific endeavour, we would hope to enjoy the same safety led, consultative and collaborative relationship with those involved in the UK’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy.”
In considering the best launching trajectories, the Sceptre report said that local populations must be taken into account at many locations, with the Faroe Islands of “particular concern”, and Iceland and Norway also “likely to be a potential concern”.
The study said that from a “pure orbital delivery performance perspective”, Saxa Vord on Shetland is the “best location in the UK to launch from as the trajectory avoids the populations in the Faroe Islands and Iceland”, while Aird Uig on Lewis offers the “poorest performance”.
To launch from The Moine in Sutherland, the rockets would be required to carry out a “dog-leg manoeuvre” to reduce the “risk to the population of the Faroe Islands to an acceptable level”.
Performing such a manoeuvre would reduce the payload on a rocket by about a third, however.
A spokesman for the Faroe Islands government said: “UK Space Agency has contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade regarding future undertakings, which includes the Sutherland plan.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently processing the information provided in close dialogue with relevant authorities and stakeholders in the Faroe Islands.
“Consequently, the ministry does not have further comments on the matter at the moment.”
Professor Malcolm Macdonald, director of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, said: “In terms of the Faroe Isles and Iceland and other islands like that, effectively you can fly around them.
“The simplest, most fuel efficient way is to fly in a straight line, but there’s a trajectory called a dog-leg manoeuvre where you fly in one direction and then you basically change your heading to a slightly different angle, a few degrees of change.
“That costs you a little bit of propellant but allows you to fly around populated areas. For the Sutherland site, they would be able to do these types of dog-legged manoeuvres to fly it around the islands.”
He added: “It’s not a show-stopper. Absolutely not.”
The UK Space Agency said: “Safety, security and protection of the environment in the context of launch activities are a top priority for the UK Government – as laid out in the Space Industry Act – and this approach will inform our discussions with other governments.”