Kiruna Airport: Sweden’s Unlikely Space And Research Hub

For European winter tourists, Kiruna Airport in northern Sweden is a gateway to the Arctic Circle. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the facility was processing more than 250,000 passengers a year from both international and domestic destinations. However, it is also a key center for some of the world’s leading space and research groups.

Kiruna Airport Getty
Kiruna Airport is at its busiest during the winter months. Photo: Getty Images

Kiruna Airport in a nutshell

According to Kiruna Airport’s website, the facility has been operational for more than six decades. It opened its doors in 1960, and holds the title of being Sweden‘s northernmost airport. Located in the arctic circle, the city’s remote location at the top of the country means that air travel plays a vital role in transporting people and goods there.

The airport has a single paved runway, with the headings 03/21, which measures 2,502 meters in length. The facility employs 100 people, and its terminal has a surface area of 2,500 square meters. Kiruna sees a diverse mix of traffic, and the airport explains that:

The airport has become increasingly important, given the increase in business development, tourism and research facilities in the area. Mining operations, space research, magnificent nature, the Northern Lights, and, perhaps above all, the Icehotel attract people from all around the world.”

Kiruna Airport
Kiruna Airport finds itself in a beautiful part of the world. Photo: Isabell Schulz via Flickr

A snowy space and research hub

As previously alluded to, space research has also become an increasingly important topic in Kiruna since the turn of the century. In 2007, Spaceport Sweden was founded in co-operation with Virgin Galactic. This would see Kiruna become not just Sweden’s but Europe’s primary suborbital spaceport, as well as Virgin Galactic’s first non-US facility.

Kiruna’s location also lends itself to space research. Northern Sweden is fairly quiet for air traffic, giving researchers the opportunity to use the free airspace to conduct experiments. For example, NASA often visits Kiruna to undertake ozone research. The Guardian adds that the European Space Agency also launches study balloons from there.

In fact, this little-known Swedish town of just 23,000 inhabitants hosts research in several fields. The UK Met Office has come to Kiruna to investigate aspects of the area’s extreme climate. Airbus and Boeing also use the site for cold-weather testing.

Kiruna Airport
Kiruna’s passenger numbers fell by 59% last year Photo: Stahlkocher via Wikimedia Commons

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International growth and resumption

Like many airports worldwide, Kiruna faced a sharp drop in passenger numbers last year amid the peak of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The airport reports that it saw just 110,000 passengers in 2020, compared to nearly 268,000 in 2019. This represents a drop of around 59%, or 60% compared to the 277,000 passengers it served in 2018.

That being said, the coming winter season looks set to be a more fruitful one or Kiruna. As Simple Flying reported earlier this year, December will see Eurowings launch a seasonal service from Stuttgart. SAS‘s charters from London Heathrow are also reportedly set to resume next month, just in time for a magical Christmas in the stunning Arctic Circle.

Did you know about Kiruna’s role as a center for space research? Have you ever visited Sweden’s northernmost airport? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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