Lift off: Scotland aims to become Europe's space capital
In October 2021, the Scottish Government published its Space Strategy. It looks to mobilise Scotland’s existing space community and become Europe’s leading space nation, capturing £4bn of the global space market and creating 20,000 new jobs by 2030.
Scotland already punches well above its weight in the space sector, with one-fifth (8,440) of the UK’s space-related jobs located north of the border, and it is home to over 130 space-related companies.
Geography plays a big part and Scotland is uniquely placed to offer small satellites an easy launch into polar orbit. And there is a massive demand for smaller satellite launches as larger satellite launch providers who are situated in places like Kazakhstan, which are dealing with challenging geopolitical issues, have been found to meet less than 35 per cent of global demand.
Micro-satellites, which weigh between 11-200kg, will be the focus of the Scottish approach to capturing a slice of the lucrative space market. Applications for the low Earth orbit satellites range from Earth and space observation, Internet of Things, communications, security, defence and national space programmes. And there are many benefits to launching smaller satellites. For example, the manufacturing time is far less and in the event of a conflict that leads to the damage or destruction of operational stock, they are much easier to replace.
As the country looks to become Europe’s leader in the sector, Glasgow already produces more satellites than anywhere else on the continent. And it has been a sharp rise since Clyde Space built Scotland’s first satellite in February 2013. At the time, then-First Minister Alex Salmond called it “a small step for Clyde Space, and a giant leap for Scottish science” noting that the advancement in nanotechnology would allow smaller companies to compete on a cost basis which in turn would make it more accessible to getting their technology into space.
Another feather in Scotland’s cap is the unique geography it offers, particularly along its northern coastline. It is one of the only countries in Europe that offers easy access to low Earth polar orbits – the orbit inhabited by a small satellite. Taking this type of orbit allows the entire surface of the Earth to be viewed several times per week.
Martin Coates is interim chief executive of Orbex, one of two rocket companies planning on launching satellites from Scottish spaceports.
“There were all sorts of options that we toured around the world before choosing Scotland, and most obviously it has a nice launch trajectory,” he says. “And because we wanted a short supply chain, we wanted a mainland location rather than an island location.
“The geography is kind of perfect because you are launching over water into relatively uninhabited space, and you happen to be in a place where it is very good for the kind of orbits that we want to go into.”
Five spaceports are currently being developed on Scotland’s north and west coast, which will accommodate horizontal, vertical, and high-altitude launches and one with the potential for hosting human spaceflight and commercial sub-orbital hypersonic flight services in the future.
With the earliest launch date from Scottish spaceports projected to be as early as the end of this year, the country is becoming even more attractive commercially in the sector.
As Scotland continues to develop its space sector the ecosystem supporting satellite launches is in an incredibly strong position. Coates explains that it is “rare” to have “research and development, manufacturing, and spaceports in such close proximity”. And he says, “For us, it is absolutely what we need”.
Massimiliano Vasile, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Strathclyde, says: “It is really interesting in Scotland – the ecosystem is complete. You go from concept to the platform, to the payload, to the launch, you have everything.”
He adds: “It is true there is an apparent separation between east and west.”
The west of Scotland, namely Glasgow, makes more satellites than anywhere in the world other than California, and Edinburgh is “generally regarded as the space data capital of Europe”, according to the founder of AstroAgency, Daniel Smith.
When Scotland sees its first launch it won’t be towering rockets akin to that of the 110-metre-tall Apollo 11 that took man to the moon for the first time. Instead, micro-launcher rockets will be used to send satellites into orbit from Scotland.
In May 2022, Orbex’s Prime full orbit micro-launcher rocket was the first in Europe to reach the technical readiness stage. It was hailed by the director general of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, as “deeply impressive”. He also noted that he was “equally impressed by the low carbon footprint technology”.
The 19-metre-tall rocket is believed to be “the world’s most environmentally friendly space rocket”, according to its creator. Made of seven 3D-printed engines fuelled by low-carbon Calor Futuria Liquid Gas, which is a biofuel, the rocket will be launched from the Sutherland Spaceport, located on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, which when completed, is expected to be carbon neutral. Steps are being taken by businesses to align themselves with Scotland’s vision to develop “a world-leading environmental strategy” for Scotland’s space industry.
Speaking on the potential to recover some of the materials used on the Prime rocket, Coates says: “You can recover the key components, it’s a re-flight approach. We are not trying to emulate [Elon Musk’s] SpaceX’s ability to land a rocket back because we don’t really need to do that.
“With the stresses that go into it, not just the engine but handling liquid oxygen in the lightweight materials that we are using, we are not going to reuse those core components, but we can recycle them. Minimising the environmental impact as well as using a biofuel really does narrow our footprint enormously.”
But Vasile makes the case that, although positive steps are being taken by companies like Orbex to drastically slash the environmental impact, the manufacturing process and the use of materials “needs to be reconsidered”. He describes the space sector as “strange” in the sense that “it has grown basically unregulated” and has “adopted the approach of building something to dispose of it”.
Noting that his opinion is not the same as others in Scotland’s space community, he says: “Everything is built to last as long as possible to then be disposed of. And this paradigm is completely different from what we do in other sectors where we try to recycle, reuse, repair and remanufacture. So, making the space sector sustainable, in every sense, would be quite a disruptive change in paradigm, and I think Scotland with its capacity and capability to be disruptive can lead and can show this can happen.”
He adds, emphasising that his opinion may not be shared by others: “To grow the economy of Scotland, they want to launch more things. There is the first element that you can’t keep launching things into space as you stop having space that is useful and usable.
“We are in a situation where there is exponential growth. All the traffic in orbit needs to be balanced by something else that is happening in orbit. We need to launch stuff that can survive in orbit and doesn’t create more debris. And I don’t think a lot of the companies in Scotland have this very clear in mind. We are at a point in which to make space sustainable everything we launch has to be manoeuvrable and is deorbited and disposed of in less than one year after the end of life.”
Space debris, otherwise known as space junk, is a real concern for the sector. There are over 23,000 fragments over four inches and an estimated 500,000 pieces between 0.4 and four inches across adding to those larger fragments. Most of that debris sits within low Earth orbit and it can cause serious damage to satellites in that zone before it eventually burns up in the atmosphere.
Computer simulations published in Science suggest that in the next 200 years, debris larger than eight inches across will increase by 1.5 times. But the smaller particles will increase even more. Junk between four inches and eight inches is expected to multiply 3.2 times and debris less than four inches will grow by a factor of 13 to 20.
The worries don’t end there, ecocide and space warfare are real risks to the future of innovation in space. Vasile says, “there isn’t a full perception of how bad that could be”. Although there has not been any direct conflict in space to date, China and India have both blown up satellites during anti-satellite missile tests, the latter of which created a new cloud of around 400 fragments of debris which increased the risk of impacts to the International Space Station by an estimated 44 per cent over a 10-day period.
Vasile explains: “Even among the companies I have spoken to there is always this idea that space is vast, but it is absolutely not the case. And the problem is not even the fact that you have major collisions, every time there is an explosion the fragments that are generated, including the ones that are not trackable, could potentially damage assets.”
Although Vasile casts a worrying gaze over growing space clutter and debris, he is confident that the innovation in space “is going to grow”. He draws a parallel between the automotive industry and his own, “we have a lot of cars; there are private companies that manufacture cars”, he points out that “regulations grew with the sector” but in space “that is not the case”. He argues that regulations are “a decade behind the private sector”.
“We will have to regulate it otherwise there will be serious consequences.”
While there are risks and concerns attached to endeavours in space that must be acknowledged, there is palpable optimism. Innovation minister Richard Lochhead, who has been a regular feature in government for the last decade and a half and whose constituency is home to one of the rocket manufacturers, told Holyrood last month: “If you had told me just a few years ago that in my own constituency, there would be a rocket manufacturer I would have thought you’d been visiting the local whisky distilleries too often.
“You have to pinch yourself that these things are actually happening.”