THE final frontier is closer than ever as a new golden age of space dawns and Scotland is on the launch pad, ready for lift-off.

And competition is intense. An American company recently launched a rocket into space from New Zealand, the first from a private launch facility.

The private space company SpaceX also sent up a rocket to deliver a Japanese communications satellite into orbit earlier this month.

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And closer to home, a communications satellite will be launched from the European Space Agency Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana on Thursday.

This week’s UK Space Conference will be told that Scotland is now the “most space intensive part of the UK” as we move ever closer to launching our own satellites into Earth’s orbit.

The sector employs more than 7,000 people north of the border – up from 5,500 last year – and is estimated to be worth upwards of £130 million to our economy.

Dr Malcom Macdonald, director of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA), will use the biannual space conference in Manchester to talk up Scotland’s key role in securing the “true democratisation of access to space” – and he insists a spaceport north of the border is crucial if its to be mission accomplished.

The Sunday Herald revealed last month that Ayrshire company Orbital Access, founded by Kilmarnock-born aeronautical engineer Stuart McIntyre, has applied for a £10m UK Government spaceport grant which could see the first satellites launched from Prestwick Airport by 2020.

Macdonald said: “We can come up with the missions, we can build the spacecraft, we can get the data from them and we can exploit that data. The bit in the middle – putting the spacecraft into orbit – we still have to go elsewhere. If we can do that more locally we will drive down the cost.

“My feeling is we’ll definitely have at least one spaceport by the end of the decade. I expect the licensing processes to go through. I’m fairly sure there will be at least one, maybe two, spaceport licences into Scotland. I expect that we will have a number of launches from Scotland into space. I think that is likely to happen."

Scotland is leading the charge, partly due to the drop in costs. Macdonald said: “As an approximate rule of thumb you’re talking £200,000 to £300,000 to build one [a satellite] and about the same to get it into orbit. It’s a lot of money but if you went back five to 10 years the cheapest you could get a spacecraft was about £5m."

He continued, “Space is actually very accessible. If you go back 50 or 60 years we were in the era of superpowers launching spacecraft. It was very, very restricted. We’ve moved almost as far away as we can towards that to the true democratisation of access to space, where pretty much anybody can raise the money and get a spacecraft into orbit.

“If you’ve got a good idea for a business you can absolutely get that money on the market and create that business to launch spacecraft. The opportunity is there to grab that and that’s what other people are doing. We in Scotland need to be doing that too.”

When spacecraft designed, built and launched in Scotland finally reach orbit the goal will be to gather a vast amount of data which has high value back on Earth. That data can be anything from hundreds of photographs which tell a story to signals bouncing between satellites and the surface of our planet.

Macdonald, who is a professional space technology engineer and academic at the University of Strathclyde, said: “The data can be a picture but it’s not a picture like you would have on your camera phone. It’s pictures that are focussed on very specific wavelengths and when you combine multiples of those wavelengths they tell you things.

“They might tell you about the health of a crop in a farmer’s field. They might tell you about an area of land that is over-saturated and at risk of flooding. It might tell you what is snow and what is cloud."

The Scottish Government has set ambitious target for the space sector to be worth £4bn by 2030 and Macdonald insists “it’s doable”.

“The turnover of the companies headquartered in Scotland is around £131m,” he said. “You would expect that value to be bigger but you have companies headquartered elsewhere in the UK so the value is attributed to another part of the UK. In actual fact a lot of the jobs are in Scotland and the turnover comes through Scotland.

“When you look at the required growth rates they are aggressive and they are challenging but if you look at the growth in employment of 16 per cent that is of the order of magnitude that is required.

“There are 7,000 jobs in the Scottish space sector. That’s up from 5,500 jobs in the two previous years. That’s quite a significant increase and it makes Scotland the most space-intensive part of the UK. There’s more jobs in the Scottish space sector than anywhere else in the UK."

Tickets for UK Space Conference 2017, held at Manchester Central from Tuesday May 30 until Thursday June 1, are available to buy online.

Panel

The Sunday Herald asked for an interview with conference keynote speaker, Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency, the Government quango responsible for space policy.

However a spokesman for the agency said it is “restricted in terms of press interviews at the moment by purdah”, the pre-election period where governments are prevented from making announcements which could be seen as politically biased.

Delegates will have to make do with astronaut Tim Peake whose appearance is expected to be oversubscribed.

He will give a keynote on The International Space Station, Mars and Beyond, using his experiences in space to look to the future of spaceflight and exploration.