SCOTLAND now builds more space satellites that any other country in Europe. The burgeoning sector, centred on Glasgow, employs more than 7,000 people, almost one-in-five of UK space industry jobs, with many more due to be created in the new year. The Sunday Herald has spoken to some of the key players who have made Scotland the space technology capital of Europe.

The Scottish success story which started in a bedroom

Alba Orbital builds miniature satellites known as PocketQubes in an obscure office building in Glasgow’s Gorbals. When founder Tom Walkinshaw was asked why Scotland has become a hub for space technology he replied: “The short answer is we build a lot of satellites because a number of companies have set up here or moved here. It’s something Scotland has got quite good at in the last few years. We build more satellites here than anywhere else in Europe.”

The 28-year-old, from Biggar in Lanarkshire, said Scotland has never lacked talent but as there weren’t jobs in the space sector it prompted him to set up Alba in 2013 after leaving Glasgow Caledonian University with an honours degree in business studies with enterprise.

“You’re starting to see people stay in Scotland to have a career in space, which is unusual," he said. "You used to have to go to Holland or Germany or the US or further afield. There just weren’t any jobs in Scotland. You’re starting to see companies emerge now in Scotland which support jobs in the space sector.”

Walkinshaw’s company could launch a satellite for the first time as early as next year, but he was cagey about the details. The official launch of the satellite, Unicorn-1, which is “the size of a can of Irn-Bru”, is scheduled for late 2018. But they are already developing Unicorn-2, which is slightly bigger, “the size of a bottle of Irn-Bru”, according to Walkinshaw.

Unicorn-1’s payload will pick up flight data as aeroplanes fly over oceans to give accurate arrival and departure times to travellers. Unicorn-2 will be more versatile with the ability to “accommodate all types of payload”.

The company was founded by Walkinshaw in his bedroom and it now has a base in Glasgow’s Oxford Street where 10 people are employed, with another three expected to be taken on in 2018.

Softly spoken and modest, he admitted he has no idea how much his company is worth. “I’m not in this for the money,” he said. “There’s probably more lucrative things to do than build things which will go to space. It’s not the easiest way to make money, that’s for sure. I do it because it’s important.

"In the future there will be a lot more satellites built, and I want Scotland to be involved in that. In the next 10 years there will be about 10,000 new space start-ups globally. There will be a massive growth rate. It’s going to happen and I’m glad it’s also happening here.”

The academic behind a conveyor belt of talent

As Dr Malcolm Macdonald, director of SoXSA: Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, based at the University of Strathclyde, puts it, Scotland has a “strong academic space science community in Scotland.

“From that a strong academic space engineering community developed,” he said. “And we have a strong aerospace engineering sector, so I think these all contributed to the growth of the sector in Scotland.

“I also think there were some elements of luck and coincidence, as with all good success stories. There are a number of people who got their education in Scotland but left to build a career elsewhere, as it was previously the normal thing to do if you wanted to work in space. But we all came back home at around the same time with the same, or similar, ideas of wanting to live at home, but being stubborn enough to insist on working in the space sector.

“For me, this meant leaving industry, while others started new companies. The success of these companies has encouraged others to see this as a viable route, and so it becomes a virtuous circle that starts to be noticed outside Scotland as it builds momentum.”

SoXSA builds relationships between academia and industry to win funding for research projects. Macdonald added: “I’d like to think that SoXSA has also played a role in creating a focal point for the emerging space sector, supporting it, and even helping in some small way shape its culture of collaboration.

“Pre-SoXSA there was little sector-wide communication in Scotland and few events to pull the community together, unless a UK or international event should decide to visit – but even then the community didn’t know each other. SoXSA has also helped create connections into other sectors, such as geosciences, aquaculture, marine and maritime, energy because space provides solutions to other sectors challenges.

“Today, we have an almost full end-to-end commercial capability in Scotland, supported by a similarly capable academic sector. From mission concepts, to design and build of spacecraft, through to the operation of those spacecraft and the exploitation of the data that comes from them. We also now have an emerging launch capability which could close the gap in the middle.”

The US satellite company that relocated to Scotland

Spire Global designs, builds and tests nanosatellites at Glasgow’s Sky Park office complex. Nick Allain, director of brand at the US company, said: “We have 135 staff globally and 50 people working on producing our satellites in Glasgow. They have produced every satellite we’ve launched, apart from the first four. We’ve launched 60 in total, 56 built in Glasgow. That’s in the last two years.

“We produce them very quickly. They’re about the size of a loaf of bread. They’re a bit easier to produce than big satellites. Each satellite contains sensors which track weather, ships and planes.”

Allain said his company was drawn to set up a facility in Scotland by the space technology expertise here.

“The biggest reason for our move into Scotland is the access to talent,” he said. “There’s a deep root there in terms of manufacturing and also a really great university system. It constantly churns out high-value people, familiar with how you get something built. We wouldn’t build them as quickly if we did it anywhere else.”

The company is currently on a recruitment drive in Scotland. “There are plans to keep growing all of our offices, including Glasgow,” Allain said. “We do have a number of open engineering positions in Glasgow on our website.”

Allain said Glasgow is such an attractive city that several staff from the US relocated to Scotland after visiting the office at Skypark.

“There are a number of reasons for this,” he explained. “The cost of living is lower than in San Francisco, where we started the business, and the salary scale is more competitive. There’s also the draw of working on the satellites, which are built in Glasgow.

“And Glasgow is also a great city with lots to do. There’s entertainment venues and great restaurants. It’s a great place to be. And every time I go I feel safer than I do in some parts of California. The people are always nice, a little bit nicer than California. I just spent three weeks in Glasgow in November and I can’t wait to come back.”

The new kid on the block set to create jobs in Glasgow

US-based Orbital Micro Systems is to manufacture satellites at its hardware facility in Glasgow from January, the first of which is due for launch in late 2018. If successful, OMS plans a 40-strong constellation of similar satellites.

CEO William Hosack said they were signposted to Scotland by the UK Government’s Global Entrepreneur Programme.

He said: “They gave us guidance to take a look at what was going on in Scotland. What we found is a very energetic, early stage, ecosystem. We saw a lot of similarities to how it started in the US. There’s also a ton of electrical and mechanical engineering in Scotland. There’s people with an amazing amount of real world experience.

“On top of all of that, the science community in Glasgow and Edinburgh is world class. We saw a lot of potential to grow the data portion of our business and our workforce.

“In January we will have our first hire. We are looking to ultimately grow to five or six people by the end of next year and to 25 to 30 people by the end of 2019.

“The first five or six will be focussed on the manufacture of the hardware and the remainder will be creating the data products.”

The first OMS weather satellite will slot inside a spacecraft “bus” provided by CubeSat (a miniaturised satellite made up of tiny, multiple cubic units) manufacturer Clyde Space and launched from the International Space Station late next year.

Clyde Space designed and built Scotland’s first space satellite UKube-1, which was launched in Kazakhstan in 2014.

Chief executive, Craig Clark, said: “Clyde Space will be providing the bus, payload integration and test in preparation for [the OMS] launch. Of course, ultimately, the objective for Clyde Space is to support OMS with the rollout of their constellation – it’s a very exciting mission and OMS have developed a payload that has huge potential for commercial and civil data customers.”

Hosack added: “We will grow together. That’s the best kind of partnership to have.”

First satellites could soon be launched from Scottish soil

The UK Government has made £50 million available to enable new satellite launch services and low gravity space flights from UK spaceports and several Scottish bidders are vying for a cut.

UK Space Agency spokesman Chris Noble said: “The funding will be used to invest in the first launches from the UK and to deliver a programme of work to realise benefits across the country.”

Sites in Sutherland, Argyll, and Ayrshire are proposed as possible Scottish locations. Bidders have each asked for £10m, with successful applicants to be announced in March.

Noble said: “This follows the announcement earlier this year from the UK Space Agency for a call for industry proposals to establish a launch capability in the UK, which received 26 proposals. Since then, an independent advisory panel has recommended a number of proposals for further consideration, and funding will be allocated by the end of the financial year, so spring 2018.”

Noble added: “Alongside this, the Space Industry Bill has just had its first reading in the House of Commons. The bill will boost the economy, British business, engineering and science by making the UK the most attractive place in Europe for commercial spaceflight.”