Scotland’s space sector blasts into new era of micro satellites and data innovation

By Sue Kee, Business Development Manager at the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA)

Scotland is world-renowned for its innovation and academic excellence as well as its striking beauty and rich history. But did you know that we produce more satellites here than any other place in Europe?

We are on a thrilling journey in the space sector and already have more than 130 organisations engaged in space-related activity, including the well-established satellite television broadcasting domain but also a host of rapidly innovating companies who are involved either in designing and building small satellites, or in using the data produced by those spacecraft for the purpose of solving challenges on earth. In fact, Scotland’s space sector grew by a staggering 27% from 2016 to 2018.

Scotland is planning to play host to Europe’s first vertical spaceport, with significant investment from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the UK Space Agency. Construction could commence as early as 2020, with a view to launching small satellites into orbit from British shores for the first time, up to six times per year, bringing new jobs and economic growth to the region. Some of the rockets launched there will be Scottish-built too. In February 2019 Orbex unveiled its Prime rocket – including the world’s largest 3D-printed engine - at the opening of its new headquarters in Forres in the Highlands. Skyrora, based in Edinburgh, is also manufacturing environmentally friendly rockets, designed to deliver small satellites into orbit. The company is currently looking for spaceport operators to conduct their next three rocket tests.

Other spaceports are in planning too, for example at Prestwick, where launches will follow a horizontal trajectory rather than a vertical one, so that reusable space planes can make excellent use of its 3km long runway.

Image Credit: European Space Agency / NASA - Scotland seen from the International Space Station 

Spire Global and Clyde Space, both based in Glasgow, are producers of small satellites which are already in orbit. They build CubeSats, which are spacecraft built to an agreed specification, allowing commercial, off the shelf components to be used, thus reducing cost and complexity. 1U is a 10cm cube, small enough to hold in your hand and typically just more than 1kg in weight. Larger variations of CubeSats can be created such as 3U or 6U, which can accommodate more instrumentation and therefore capability. These are typically launched on “rideshares”, for example on NASA International Space Station supply missions, which have room to squeeze in a few satellites – the smaller and lighter, the more can be packed into a single launch.

Constellations of these are becoming more prevalent, meaning that the entire globe can be seen frequently. These small satellites can gather vast amounts of data, whether it’s images of the Earth to monitor ocean health, crop growth, global climate or deforestation, or navigation and positioning data to track traffic on land, sea and air.

This is where the real opportunity for massive innovation lies. The data produced from satellites can be used to solve problems in almost every sector, from agriculture to mining, health to defence, energy to sport and everything in between. Glasgow’s Bird.i is using space-derived intelligence to monitor global construction, while award-winning Trade in Space is developing new financial services with data collected by satellites. Ecometrica and GSi, both in Edinburgh, are monitoring the Earth’s forests and crops, while Astrosat is helping people understand the planet, whilst aiding disaster response. These are just some of the examples of innovative companies driving Scotland in space, and we’re excited to see more in the months and years to come.

With thanks to Sue Kee, Malcolm Macdonald, and everyone at the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.

Visit the SoXSA website here.

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