Scotland’s space industry was already thriving before the news broke, in July 2018, that we were going to be home to the UK’s first Spaceport. That was when the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise announced funding for the development of a Spaceport on the Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland.

The site chosen is on the Melness Crofters Estate (MCE). The UKSA expects the first launches from the Sutherland site to take place in the early 2020s.

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The total funding package made available to the Sutherland site amounts to £17.3 million, which includes £2.5 million from UKSA and £9.8m from HIE. In all the site is expected to create 40 high-skill jobs and a total of around 400 new related supply chain jobs. Even after Sutherland was chosen, crofters on the estate had to decide whether or not they wanted the project to go ahead. At a ballot of crofters held by MCE in early March this year, 59 percent voted in favour and thirty percent were opposed.

The strength of the opposition has yet to be tested, but John Williams, chairman of Protect The Mhoine, claimed that not all those eligible to vote had cast their votes. “It is actually a minority of crofters who support the spaceport. The proposal has split the community. There is a lot of bad feeling,” he told the press.

The feeling in the rest of Scotland seems to be one of elation that the nation’s already impressive pedigree in the space field would soon gain the additional prestige that comes from being an active centre for space launches. While the Sutherland spaceport will be a vertical launch site for small satellites, the country already seems certain to gain a horizontal launch site at Prestwick Airport. At roughly the same time that Sutherland was named as the vertical launch site, Prestwick Airport announced that UKSA was being very supportive of its bid to gain a licence as the first horizonal launch site.

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“We believe Glasgow Prestwick is by far the most suitable spot for horizontal space launches in the UK, in terms of location, capability and the thriving satellite manufacturing industry that exists on our doorstep,” the Airport authority said.

“An independent assessment confirmed that most of the anticipated infrastructure required for space launch capability is already in place at the Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport site, meaning that we can move speedily to achieve licencing once the legislation is defined.”

It added that it was actively seeking to win some of UKSA’s £2m fund being created to help three UK horizontal sites develop the market. “We look forward to working with UKSA, CAA and HSE as we develop our plans and move towards a licence application,” the Airport authority said. The legal framework for launches from UK soil was set by the UK Space Industry Act which received Royal Assent on March 15 last year.

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Private enterprise

According to Scottish Development International, the Scottish space sector is already home to over 180 organisations and employs around 7,600 people. It has very strong ties to researchers and departments in Scottish universities and research pools.

Professor Malcolm Macdonald, at the University of Strathclyde, an acknowledged expert in space research, points out that one of the most exciting things about the growth of space-related activities in Scotland is that it is being driven largely by private enterprise.

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Professor Malcolm Macdonald, of the University of Strathclyde.

“The sector is in the process of transitioning away from its early decades as a heavily government-run and government-funded industry.

Governments are still involved, but their activities are being complemented by much more commercially driven activity from the private sector,” he says. The emphasis increasingly is on smaller launch vehicles and smaller satellites. The market demand is for a much larger number of smaller launches, with payloads typically being under 500kg.

Of course, the sector still needs the huge vertical launch rockets capable of boosting six-tonne payloads into geosynchronous orbits – in which satellites maintain the same position in the sky. But new generations of micro satellites which work as “swarms” to deliver data services across a wide range of requirements, are already much in demand. Scotland’s horizontal and vertical launch sites will be ideal for these requirements.

“Right up to today, and certainly for the next few years, the cash cow in the space sector has been direct to home broadcasting. We are all familiar with Sky television. That is a very mature part of the sector, but we are already seeing some disruption here, with companies like OneWeb,” he says.

OneWeb’s mission is to bring broadband to rural communities and schools across the globe through a constellation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites that will provide coverage everywhere. “With OneWeb we can connect people in the most remote areas of the globe, including those on the move, on the road, in the air or on the sea,” it claims.

Adrian Steckel told the BBC that OneWeb aims to put up 650 satellites – its first launch of six satellites took place in late February and it aims to become the largest satellite-based broadband provider, by territory, in the world.

Global data network

This is a multi-billion dollar project, shareholders include the likes of Virgin, Softbank and Airbus. The system connects to antennae on the ground and then broadcasts to users on WiFi.

“The electronics have matured a lot. It used to be that satellites cost $250 million. We are looking at satellites that cost around $1 million each," Steckel said. His philosophy is that OneWeb is not so much trying to elbow its way in to grab a slice of the data services pie. It wants to grow the whole pie. Today's disruptive technologies are all about data, so providing a global data network for everyone grows the pie massively, he argues.

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OneWeb was founded in Arlington, Virginia, but has its headquarters in London. With a massive number of LEO satellites still to launch it will be a very attractive customer if Scotland’s emergent small satellite launch industry can win its business.

Pipeline of ideas

Professor Macdonald points out that today, Scotland builds more satellites than any other country in Europe.

“Through to the end of 2018, if we just take Spire, which has offices in Glasgow, it has built some 95 satellites in Scotland. Some 72 of these are still in orbit and all of them are operated from here,” he says. Through 2018 Spire launched 28 satellites, all built in Scotland.”

Other companies building satellites in Scotland include Clyde Space and Alba Orbital. Orbital-Access is building horizontal launch vehicles which it plans to launch from Prestwick Airport, while Skyrora is focused on its vertical launch rockets, capable of boosting small satellites into orbit.

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This article appeared in our March edition of Business HQ, to read online CLICK HERE

Macdonald points out that at least part of the success of Scotland’s space industry to date has been due to the country’s vibrant, internationally recognised academic and research community.

“This works in partnership with the space sector to create the pipeline of world-class ideas and talent that the sector needs,” he notes.

For example, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s MIRI (Mid InfraRed Instrument) camera and spectrometer were developed in Scotland. 

“We also lead the development of gravitational wave research through both the LISA-pathfinder (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) and LISA missions,” he notes.

Catherine Mealing-Jones, Director, Growth, at the UK Space Agency points out that the secondary legislation required to establish the operating rules for Scottish space ports is going to take a while to come through.

“The biggest piece of the puzzle, however, was the Space Industry Act, and we now have that.

“It provides the legal means by which we can now give out launch licenses to sites,” she says. She points out that the UK Space Agency, and the UK government have a goal of securing 10% of the global space economy by 2020, which would amount to a £4million share of a £40billion space market.

“Scotland will be launching satellites and taking advantage of the demand for human sub-orbital space flight and micro gravity manufacturing. We have a rich ecosystem of people who can exploit the opportunities that are opening up,” she says.

HeraldScotland: Blair Bell, 6 years old, from Lochmaiben who won our “name our capsule” competition.Blair Bell, 6 years old, from Lochmaiben who won our “name our capsule” competition.

Remembering the UK pioneers

Space firm Skyrora showcased a 50-year-old British rocket at Holyrood last week while MSPs discussed Scotland’s thriving space sector.

The Edinburgh-based firm had retrieved Black Arrow from the Australian outback and displayed it to highlight the UK’s leading position in the new global space race. The decision to bring Black Arrow home has been applauded by Helen Sharman, Britain’s the first astronaut.

She believes the rocket’s return could inspire people to find out more about Britain’s impressive space legacy. She said: “Looking at Black Arrow, we can see how much science and engineering were needed to create it. I hope it will inspire people to find out more.”

This article appeared in the March edition of Business HQ which you can view online by clicking here.