SCOTLAND is spearheading a sustainable space revolution as global commercial ventures are in position to overtake government space agencies for the first time in the race towards new boundaries.

Professor Massimiliano Vasile, the director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at Strathclyde University, is at the forefront of space exploration development that almost sounds like science fiction.

Some of the Strathclyde Space Institute students are designing a Moon base with the European Space Agency, while the potential uses of quantum are also being unravelled within the campus space cluster that has close links with large organisations and powerhouses like Airbus who are leading the push as well working with a constellation of small and medium-sized enterprises across Scotland.

He is also helping develop robots that are capable of dismantling and recycling space debris and spent equipment.


The 49-year-old professor said: “We do a lot of the things that are happening in space. We have access to space, which includes launch systems, and of course we are very much involved in the whole business of spaceports in Scotland and having launch capabilities in Scotland.

“We are connected to the people who want to have a launch system from Prestwick, we are in contact with Skyrora in Edinburgh, and we are talking with Deimos for the launch site in the Highlands.

“That’s one area that is quite important. Another area that’s important is space debris.

“We are very much involved in finding a solution to the problem of space debris, through a number of European projects, the main one at the moment is called Stardust-R that has 25 partners across the globe.”

The Stardust Reloaded project, led by the professor, is a European research push to explore and exploit asteroids and make the use of space sustainable, and was awarded €4 million through the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme.

The professor says: “We have a number of collaborations with European Space Agency and a number of companies that are very much interested in solving many aspects of the problem of space debris and sustainability of the use of space around the Earth.”

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It comes as the UK’s first space station is planned for Sutherland and there is growing space business hubs in bases including Glasgow and Prestwick.

The university leads the European field in many aspects of space exploration.

Italian-born Prof Vasile said: “Another area that is quite important, especially given the current space economy in Scotland, is the use of small satellites.

“We work especially on the design of new missions or new enabling technology that can be put on a small satellite to observe the Earth.

“In that area, we work a lot on the idea of having constellations of small satellites, or hybrid constellations of small satellites and big satellites, and how they interact, how they connect to each other, how they provide a service, how they improve the current services that we receive on Earth, and that connects to all the work that we do, all satellite applications, which is one thing that is really important, because the UK, in particular, is putting money into services, new services, and satellite applications are an area that has a lot of potential to generate revenues and improve the economy.”

He continued: “We are very much interested also in space exploration, and in particular the exploration of minor bodies, like comets or asteroids.

“Again, we have received money from Europe to study how to travel to these bodies and how to deflect them if they are on a collision course with the Earth.

"So we are certainly a centre of excellence for that, if you want, in Europe, and we put together the two things

“That aspect of space exploration is still very important for us."

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He said: “But we don’t just study small bodies like asteroids, we are also involved in programmes that aim at establishing a base on the Moon, because that is a big thing for ESA at the moment. So, we are involved in an ESA lab with our students, for example, for the design of a Moon base.

“The other thing that we do here at Strathclyde, coming from a collaboration between us and computer science, is that we are really pushing to develop AI technology.

“For example, we are trying to give more intelligence to the spacecraft. We are trying to create artificial intelligence agents that provide support to a missional specialist.

“We are developing the same type of artificial intelligence agent also to support space operators that have to make maybe decisions on collision avoidance or on managing large constellations.

“So, there is this aspect of developing artificial intelligence systems in general that go from very simple data applications to more science fiction-like, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

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He says both ESA and companies Airbus “very interested in this technology”.

He said: “The applications of space robotics are going in two directions: one is, again, exploration, and thinking of the Moon and Mars, and the other is on orbit servicing, which has a lot of potential for the future. As you can see, it’s quite a diverse landscape here. So, we go from new types of missions, to very fundamental physics, to sensing, and sensor development like radar and so on, to robotics, to artificial intelligence, and we mix it all together.

“Part of space is already working in the business. People might not realise that, but navigation technology is everywhere, navigational services are now essential, you don’t use a map anymore, if it’s not on a phone.

“Telecommunication satellites, broadcasting of TV, these are all areas that have always been commercial.

“So, it’s not a new thing, what is happening now, is, first of all, that there are more private companies that are investing in space because they see the benefit of that.

“Before, we didn’t have OneWeb, we didn’t have SpaceX, we didn’t have Amazon deciding to go into space. We didn’t have all this, that’s the really new thing - private sector taking ownership of developing very large scale programmes, and, again, the reason is that they really see the benefit that they have ideas to get an almost immediate return on their investment, but the interesting thing is that their approach is often far less conservative than the one that space agencies are adopting.

“So they can take risks, they can accelerate the development much faster. So, and that’s the other thing that is quite different now, the private sector is moving, sometimes, at a speed that is faster than the agency that need to licence basically, the services of the products that private sector is developing.”

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With around 22,000 pieces of space debris currently being tracked, and around 34,000 bigger than 10 centimetres, it will be critical to develop a sustainable space platform for business ahead.

The professor, who is from Milan, added: “For everything new in the future, we need the support of people. If you want to solve the problem of space debris, we need agencies to intervene, and we need people to push the government to be more responsible. It’s the right investment because otherwise everything else will fall. People will lose services.

“Compared to how much the government spends on other things, the space spend is very little.

“Every single thing we do is not necessarily driven by an economic return in the short-term.

“We explored the globe, we found new land, and we learned about everything that is on our planet. We need to know more about the universe. We need to know more about our place in the universe.

“It is important to grow as human beings.”

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Q What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

A I rarely travel only for leisure. Normally it is work related. Certainly Japan is at the top of my list. I always enjoys going to France and Canada. Japan because of the mix of extreme modernity and ancient traditions, France because it has all the qualities of Italy (my home country) with less defects, and Canada because it is Europe but in North America.

Q When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

A Building spaceships and travelling in space. Why? Well I grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek.

Q What was your biggest break in academia/business/research?

A Never had a break. I actually never really applied for a job either. I was always head hunted, so to say, since I graduated.

Q What was your worst moment in academia/business/research?

A Probably when I had to leave Italy and move to Scotland. It was a big risk to leave my academic job, my friends, my family in Italy and move here. It turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done. The other bad moment is now, with Brexit, the current Government, the insanity of the last three years.

Q Who do you most admire and why?

A Difficult question. I do not really have a single person that I most admire. I generally admire underdogs and people who do great things but behind the curtains. I admire people who never stop dreaming a better future and who have the strength to stand up for what is right. I am glad that we live in times where we have billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos that inspire people, like Lorenzo de' Medici used to do in the Renaissance, but I do not specifically admire them, I am glad they exist in a period of history in which governments and politicians are short-sighted and think small.

Q What music are you listening to? What book are you reading? What was the last film you saw? 

A Music: Classic FM. Book? I mainly read scientific publications in these days. Film? A John Wick 3.

The Strathclyde Space Institute is composed of four main research centres: Aerospace Centre of Excellence in MAE; Space Mechatronics Systems Technology Laboratory in DMEM; Centre for Space Science & Applications in Physics; and the Centre for Excellence in Signal & Image Processing in EEE; and is connected to the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications and supports the activities of the Scottish Space School and StrathSEDS (part of the UK SEDS network).