Lockheed Martin Picks ABL Space Systems for Satellite Launches From Scotland

The Scottish island of Unst has been chosen to help boost the market for small satellite launches in the UK.
Fabienne Lang

Lockheed Martin selected ABL Space Systems' (ABL) RS1 rocket to launch from a new spaceport built on Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The first flight could take place as early as next year from the island's Shetland Space Center.

Lockheed Martin's hope is to keep expanding on the U.K.'s business for small satellite launches, a market that's rapidly expanding worldwide. 

ABL will be in charge of carrying out the rocket launches, not Lockheed Martin, which also won't be operating the spaceport, a task the Shetland Space Center will look after. Lockheed Martin will establish the infrastructure, to hopefully also become a customer for launches down the line, as Nik Smith, UK regional director of Lockheed Martin told BBC News.

The announcement is a fulfillment of an agreement that the British government set out in 2018 to push forward UK-based space launches. 

ABL Space System's RS1 rocket

ABL's RS1 is a two-stage vehicle that spans 88 feet high (27 meters). The rocket is able to put one ton of payload into a 500 km- (310 mile-) high Sun-synchronous orbit, or the kind of polar orbit mostly used for Earth-observing satellites. 

For this reason, the island of Unst is ideally located as any debris falling from a launch would fall into the ocean given the island's remote location. 

ABL's RS1 is not only impressive as a rocket, but also for its easy transportation system. The rocket, as well as launch pad electric systems, and required fluids, can essentially fit into a shipping container so as to be highly transportable and deployable.

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Next year's RS1 launch would see the rocket deploy a sort of "space tug" built by Moog, an English company.

"We want the UK to be the first in Europe to launch small satellites into orbit, attracting innovative businesses from all over the world," Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said in a statement. "Lockheed Martin’s selection of ABL Space Systems for their UK Pathfinder launch brings us one step closer to realizing this ambition, putting the UK firmly on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination."

Just last year, another island in the Shetlands, North Roe, saw a rocket launch practice as part of its mission to also launch satellites to orbit, so it's clear to see the U.K. is taking steps towards its launching goals.

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