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Taking up Space: How high-tech Scotland is shooting for the stars

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Taking up Space: How high-tech Scotland is shooting for the stars

Scotland has its eyes on the skies.

We build more small satellites than anywhere else in Europe and are home to one of the continent’s largest informatics centres, crunching data sent back from space. And, with five different spaceports in the works, we could begin launching satellites as early as this year.

The Scottish Government wants this country to become “Europe’s leading space nation” by 2030 and Scotland is crucial to the UK Government’s plan to build “one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world”. 

But evidence given to MPs has raised questions about whether government has taken the right actions to prepare for this giant leap for mankind. “You’re opening a can of worms there,” says Scott Hammond, deputy CEO of SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst, Shetland. “The UK has published a space strategy and so has the Scottish Government. I think I would like to see a little more resources behind it because otherwise it’s just paper, really.”

Hammond’s operation, nestled in the north east of the island, is the first licensed spaceport for vertical launches in the UK. Four similar sites, ranging from Sutherland’s A’Mhoine peninsula to Macrihanish near Campbeltown, also aim to shoot for the stars. The RAF shut up shop in Unst in 2006 and the spaceport is expected to create 140 local jobs, plus around 100 more elsewhere in Scotland. The first launches could come as early as this year, with satellites launched into sun-synchronous low Earth polar orbits to beam back data. A replica longhouse and ship nearby reveal how Unst’s geography opened it up to the explorers of the past, making it a Viking outpost. Now it represents an entry point to another frontier.

Permission for rocket launches came from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in December after £30m-worth of development. “Granting SaxaVord their licence is an era-defining moment for the UK space sector,” said the CAA’s director of space regulation, Tim Johnson, and “marks the beginning of a new chapter for UK space”. But the CAA green light is just one of many permissions launch firms must seek in a regulatory framework that includes both devolved and reserved agencies. “To me,” Hammond told Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee when asked whether government has the right strategy in place, “there’s almost too many cooks involved.” 

The comments came during an evidence session as part of the committee’s inquiry into the space sector’s contribution to the Scottish economy. This innovative, high-tech sector created an estimated total income of £254m in 2017-18, supporting Gross Value Added of £880m and representing 14 per cent of the UK’s total space industry contribution. Figures for 2019-20 show one fifth (8,440) of all UK space sector jobs are based here, with activity spread out across the country. Glasgow has established itself as a centre for satellite production, with a specialism in small, light cubesat technology, while Edinburgh has a growing reputation for excellence in informatics. There’s excellence too in Dundee, and it’s thought that Aberdeen’s oil and gas workforce could provide the highly skilled labour the sector will depend upon if its sought-after growth is realised.

“We have everything here,” says Professor Massimiliano Vasile, director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde. “Scotland can go from concept to launch to operations to services without asking anybody else. We have the satellite manufacturing, payload providers, launch sites. 

“The space sector has grown much faster than people know, and it is much more important than they realise.”

Vasile, a multi-award-winning expert in design, computational tools and analysis for the space sector, was attracted to Scotland after a stint at the European Space Agency. “I realised there was a lot going on in Scotland,” he says, praising the “level of innovation and new ideas and discovery”. “It has a unique position in Europe. That’s probably what’s kept me here,” he goes on.

“Brexit made everything much more difficult – it’s more difficult to recruit students and staff and we’ve had problems accessing funding and collaborating with other countries – but Scotland is still the best place to be in the UK. If the Scottish Government is able to support this complete ecosystem, everyone is going to benefit.”

Matters directly relating to outer space are reserved to Westminster, while others affecting the sector, like planning and higher education, are devolved to Holyrood. Both governments have a stake in this, and both have space strategies. The UK Government’s strategy includes a venture capital framework to bring in private investment, and it’s claimed that £1 in every £8 put into space by private funders is spent in the UK, making it second only to the US. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s paper, launched in 2021, sets out plans to capture a £4bn share of the global market by 2030, creating as many as 20,000 jobs. There are ministers at both ends responsible for making it happen – in Edinburgh, space falls to Small Business, Innovation and Trade Minister Richard Lochhead, while in London it’s Science, Research and Innovation Minister Andrew Griffiths – but the Scottish Affairs Committee heard that this might not be enough. 

“What we need to look at is having a senior politician directly responsible for space and space launch, and I would suggest that at cabinet level,” Hammond told the MPs, explaining that some of the agencies his team deals with, such as the Marine Directorate which issues licences for the deposit of materials into the sea, were “never set up with that in mind” and saying that “political oversight and top cover would be very advantageous”. Martin Coates, director of Forres-based orbital services company Orbex, which will operate and launch from Space Hub Sutherland, said steps could be taken to “make it clean and simple to get what we need done”. “If you’re going to put effort into space, then everything kind of needs to be supporting that,” he told the committee. 

Vasile says it’s important that the Scottish Government is not just “an observer” in the development of the sector, and he’d like to see it “affecting the general policy of the UK” to ensure commitments made work in Scotland’s favour. Daniel Smith of industry body Space Scotland, who recently appeared on a panel with First Minister Humza Yousaf at Cop28, says the Scottish Government is “supportive”. It’s a “huge plus” to have the first minister so engaged, he says, but he acknowledges that there are some frustrations in the launch part of the sector about how quickly things happen. Still, he’s hugely positive about the environment he and industry colleagues are working in. 

“This is such a formative sector,” he says. “It’s never going to be fast enough and there’s always going to be a period of getting things going. If we want to make a success of things we do need to move fast, but I have seen huge developments.”

Smith, of specialist marketing firm AstroAgency, says the publication of the world’s first space sustainability roadmap is one such development. He worked on the document for Space Scotland and Scottish Enterprise, and while there’s been excitement around developments like eco-friendly fuel Ecosene, created from waste plastics by Scots firm Skyrora, the roadmap calls for more funding for research and development and an action plan to cut emissions.

The roadmap was welcomed by Lochhead, who said the “world has taken notice” of this activity and wants to “learn from Scotland about embedding sustainability in industry”, and he suggested experts here can “develop the solutions to the problems of other nations”. “We have already built up strong international interest,” he said.

It was that work that led to Smith’s Cop28 appearance and he is passionate about the sector’s potential to underpin green changes across industries through the collection of data providing ever-more granular detail on forestry loss, thermal changes, transport usage and more. “I think of it as an enabler, something that underpins other sectors,” he says. “We all use space 20 times a day and we don’t even know it.” 

“Scotland can demonstrate how to do space differently, how to be more sustainable and how to change the paradigm,” says Vasile, who is working on solutions to clean up space. There are tens of thousands of pieces of space debris in circulation already and Strathclyde University’s Hypernav project aims to use hyperspectral technology to reveal what our eyes can’t see and combine this with machine learning to create a new technique which could enable future clearance operations. Without this, Vasile suggests, Scotland’s satellite and launch capabilities may eventually become useless as the shrapnel wrecks what we send up. 

A new lab mimicking spacecraft motion will test the technique and it’s hoped that commercial opportunities will follow and allow for a circular space economy. And there’s more such innovation going on, with the University of Glasgow recently announcing that its engineers had built and fired the first unsupported ‘autophage’ rocket engine, which uses up part of its own plastic fuselage for fuel, requiring less propellant and reducing space debris. Tests were carried out at the MachLab facility at Machrihanish Airbase and Professor Patrick Harkness says the “foundational” work could eventually “help advance the UK’s ambitions to develop as a key player in the space industry”. The development was welcomed by UK Space Agency CEO Dr Paul Bate, who says it has “great potential”.

The research was supported by funding from the Ministry of Defence and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which are just two such public bodies to back the sector. Levelling-Up cash, too, has been spent on Scotland’s space sector, for example, and development body Highlands and Islands Enterprise told the Scottish Affairs Committee that the jobs that could be created were key to its interest. David Oxley, HIE director of strategic projects, says the agency “got into looking at the space sector for specific reasons, mainly around Dounreay” and the looming decommissioning of the nuclear power site in Caithness. “At some point there will be 1,000 jobs lost,” he says, and the idea of developing a spaceport in Sutherland came about as part of an exercise in seeking to create “good, technical, skilled” positions. But success in that venture, he argues, would create UK-wide benefits. 

“Increasingly we recognise that as an economic development agency, where we’re fighting for jobs against other parts of the UK and other parts of the world, and when you’ve got a geographic advantage, it makes it a hell of a lot easier,” he says. “If we were trying to create a call centre somewhere, that is really challenging when you have a population of less than half a million in the whole of the Highlands and Islands, as opposed to Glasgow or London. If you’re doing space and particularly launch, you have to be in the north of Scotland to do it if you want to be in the UK. This is a really important aspect of the UK space economy and Scotland leading and being almost the PR machine.”

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