By Kristy Dorsey

Alba Orbital, the Glasgow-based manufacturer of miniature satellites, is preparing for its biggest launch yet after becoming the first Scottish company to secure funding through the Y Combinator start-up programme in Silicon Valley.

The $3.4 million (£2.5m) from a group of approximately 40 investors including Fitbit chief executive James Park is the first-ever external funding for Alba, which was set up in 2012 by chief executive Tom Walkinshaw. Among other things, the money will be used to support the launch of a world-record 20 PocketQube satellites by Alba in the fourth quarter of this year.

Composed of 5cm cubes weighing as little as 250g, PocketQubes are tiny satellites designed to bring down the cost space access. A basic one can be put into orbit at a price of about £25,000, ranging up to circa £500,000 for the highest-end model.

In 2019, Alba became the first company to deploy as many as six PocketQubes into orbit. These were carried into space by Rocket Lab, a commercial spaceport operator based in New Zealand.

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Rocket Lab is now scheduled to carry a further four of Alba’s pico-satellites into orbit on its Electron vehicle that is due to launch in November. That will be followed by a further 16 scheduled to be onboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December.

Of the 20, five are designed to monitor artificial light at night (ALAN). Named Unicorn-2, these earth imaging pico-satellites track things such as light pollution, urbanisation, greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage.

“Our Unicorn-2 satellite will capture high resolution imagery of the Earth at night,” Mr Walkinshaw said. “This data is a valuable tool in providing explicit measures of human activity so we can monitor levels of light emission over time.

“Where this can be helpful is spotting new refugee settlements and measuring the impact of armed conflict. For example, by observing the changes in light emission caused by the displacement of refugees, we can see where new settlements are located.”

The other 15 satellites have been built by Alba on behalf of clients from eight different countries for a variety of purposes such as spectrum monitoring, or connecting devices in remote locations via the internet of things (IoT).

Employing 15 people, Alba broke even in its last financial year. To facilitate its new Silicon Valley investors, the company is now registered in the US, with the Glasgow operation a subsidiary of the US parent company.

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Mr Walkinshaw said though it was difficult for space companies to raise investment in the past, the funding situation has eased as projects such as the SpaceX programme have raised the industry’s profile and increased the feasibility of its aims. He added that going out to the US has “opened a lot of doors for us”.

“This is a huge milestone for Alba and the Scottish space sector,” he said. “Our hard-working team are delighted to have secured the funding, which will help to ensure we are on track to break the world record and beyond.

“Our world record aims later this year will double the number of PocketQubes ever flown to orbit and put Scotland at the forefront of space access democratisation for nations worldwide.”

In July, Glasgow satellite communications specialist R3-IoT closed a £3.1m seed investment round led by US-based Space Capital. Speaking about Alba’s fundraising, UK Trade Minister Ivan McKee said it was “fantastic news” for the company and the Scottish space sector as a whole.

“It once again demonstrates Scotland’s world-leading capabilities in providing affordable access to space and the critical role that the sector is playing in the fight against climate change,” he said. “Space is a focus for global partnership and cooperation – increasingly, Scotland is at the heart of that process.”