WASHINGTON — A launch facility under development in the Shetland Islands has become the first licensed vertical spaceport in the United Kingdom, although exactly when it will host its first launch remains uncertain.

The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced Dec. 17 that it issued a spaceport license for SaxaVord Spaceport, located on the island of Unst in the Shetland Islands. The license allows the spaceport to host up to 30 launches a year, including four in any month.

SaxaVord is the second spaceport to be licensed by the CAA and the first capable of hosting vertical launches. CAA issued a spaceport license in November 2022 to Spaceport Cornwall, located at Newquay Airport Cornwall in southwestern England, for launches by the now-defunct Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launch system.

“Granting SaxaVord their license is an era-defining moment for the U.K. space sector,” said Tim Johnson, director of space regulation at the CAA, in a statement. “This marks the beginning of a new chapter for U.K. space as rockets may soon launch satellites into orbit from Scotland.”

“The award of our spaceport license is both historic for Shetland, Scotland and the U.K., and places us firmly at the leading edge of the European and global space economy,” Frank Strang, chief executive of SaxaVord Spaceport, said in a statement. “There is much to do still but this is a fantastic way to end the year and head into Christmas.”

The announcement of the license, though, provided few details about when the first launch from SaxaVord would take place. The spaceport noted in its statement that companies planning to launch from the spaceport include ABL Space Systems, HyImpulse, Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) and Skyrora.

Of those four, only ABL has attempted an orbital launch: its first launch in January from Alaska failed seconds after liftoff. It is preparing for a second launch in the near future, also from Alaska. ABL’s launch from SaxaVord is in support of Lockheed Martin’s “U.K. Pathfinder” mission funded by the U.K. Space Agency.

RFA is developing its RFA One small launch vehicle, and a company executive said in November that they expected to be ready for a first launch in mid-2024. The U.K. Space Agency is providing $4.3 million to fund infrastructure and test equipment needed for the launch.

HyImpulse signed a letter of intent Nov. 15 to perform launches from SaxaVord. That will begin with suborbital launches as soon as August 2024, with orbital launches expected to begin in late 2025.

In a Dec. 18 statement, Volodymyr Levykin, chief executive of Skyrora, said his company was working towards “an orbital launch from U.K. soil at the end of next year.” Skyrora, though, said last November it was planning a 2023 orbital launch shortly after the failure of a suborbital launch from Iceland.

A fifth launch company, Astra Space, previously expressed interest in launching from SaxaVord, with the company announcing a partnership with the spaceport in May 2022. Astra has since slowed development of its launch vehicles because of limited cash, and SaxaVord no longer lists Astra as a client.

SaxaVord Spaceport has reportedly suffered its own financial problems that stopped construction work in the summer, according to local media. Strang told the Shetland News Dec. 17 that his company had made “enormous process in plugging the funding gap” and that he expected full-scale construction efforts to resume in 2024.

SaxaVord is not the only spaceport project seeking a license in the United Kingdom. Another is Sutherland Spaceport in northern Scotland, originally selected by the U.K. Space Agency as the country’s preferred vertical launch site in 2018 and now being developed by Orbex for its Prime small launch vehicle.

“I think we will see the final flurry of spaceports for a while in 2024,” said Colin MacLeod, head of U.K. spaceflight regulation at the CAA, during a Dec. 14 webinar by the Westminster Business Forum on the U.K. space sector. He said there were five to seven organizations pursuing spaceports in the U.K. “We’re getting to the point now where most of them are in a position to either take the decision to apply for a license or not.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...