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Sutherland launch site
Artwork shows the spaceport at Scotland’s Sutherland site. (HIE / Courtesy of Perfect Circle PV)

The British government has selected a spot in Sutherland, on the A’Mhoine Peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, as the site of the country’s first vertical-launch spaceport. Three other sites will receive boosts for horizontal air-launch operations.

In a news release timed to coincide with the opening of this week’s Farnborough International Airshow, the government said it would provide initial funding of £2.5 million ($3.3 million) to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to develop the vertical-launch site in Sutherland, with an aim of seeing the first liftoff in the early 2020s.

The consortium behind the Sutherland bid includes Lockheed Martin.

Sutherland was chosen for the United Kingdom’s first vertical launch site after an assessment of several proposed spaceport sites in Scotland as well as Wales and England’s Cornwall region. The UK Space Agency determined that the spot on Scotland’s north coast was the best place to target highly sought-after satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets.

The three proposed horizontal-launch sites will be eligible for grants from a newly established £2 million ($2.7 million) fund to promote suborbital space flights, satellite launches and spaceplane operations, the government said. Those sites are Newquay in Cornwall, Glasgow Prestwick in Scotland, and Snowdonia in Wales.

The Newquay site, known as Spaceport Cornwall, has already recruited a satellite launch provider: Virgin Orbit, a California-based company that’s part of British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

Virgin Orbit said it would use its air-launch platform, a modified Boeing 747 jet nicknamed Cosmic Girl, to send payloads into orbit on its LauncherOne rockets. The system is due to undergo flight tests in California over the next several months.

“The Cornwall partnership allows us to grasp important market share, gain instant global market credibility and, with the technology already being tested in the U.S., further lower our risk,” Patrick McCall, managing director for Virgin group and chairman of Virgin Orbit’s board of directors, said in a news release.

Virgin Orbit is partnering with Cornwell Council on the spaceport project, which could start air-launch operations as early as 2021. Spaceport Cornwall is projected to create 480 jobs and contribute $33 million a year to the local economy.

British officials estimate that the commercial space sector will be worth a potential $5 billion to the country’s economy over the next decade.  “The space sector is an important player in the U.K.’s economy, and our recent Space Industry Act has unlocked the potential for hundreds of new jobs and billions of revenue for British business across the country,” said Britain’s secretary of state for transport, Chris Grayling.

The United Kingdom already has a thriving satellite industry, fueled in part by potential spaceport customers such as San Francisco-based Spire Global.

“In Spire, Scotland already sports Europe’s most advanced and prolific satellite manufacturing capability, and with a spaceport right next door, enabling clockwork-like launches, we can finally get our space sector supply chain to be truly integrated,” Spire CEO Peter Platzer said in today’s news release.

The government said additional grants from its £50 million ($66 million) UK Spaceflight Program fund would be announced during the Farnborough Airshow.

Sutherland isn’t likely to be Europe’s only spaceport, and it may not be its first: Last week, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and Italian partners signed onto a plan to build a spaceport on the heel of Italy’s “boot,” with operations beginning as early as 2020.

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