AS WE ALL KNOW, 100 years ago, the Clyde shipbuilding industry was the biggest in Europe, building a fifth of the world’s ships, but what we mostly don’t know is that, these days, a new form of shipbuilding has been developing in Glasgow – spaceships, or more commonly called satellites. Somewhat surprisingly, Glasgow is now the largest city in Europe for the manufacture of satellites.
Space technology is Scotland is thriving and we seem to be becoming a centre of excellence in what is becoming known as ‘Agile Space’, the term being applied to modern, small, low-cost space technology, as opposed to the traditional massive national programmes of the USA or Russia.
This all started in 2005 with the formation of Clyde Space, a company which builds small ‘CubeSats’; equipment boxes 10cm on each side, into which can be packed sophisticated electronics and radio links which, coupled with solar panels, can be deployed to undertake tasks such as monitoring atmospheric conditions, the health of oceans or forests; track asteroids, or enable communications links.
They have been joined by Alpha Orbital who specialise in even smaller ‘PocketQube’s, satellite units that measure 5cm on each side, and, very significantly, by the giant multi-national Spire Global which, although headquartered in San Francisco, has selected Glasgow to base their satellite manufacturing capacity. Over 1000 cubesats have been launched in the world so far, of which over 100 have been Scottish-built.
Meanwhile another new company, Skyrora, has been set up on the outskirts of Edinburgh to build launch rockets aimed at significantly reducing the cost of getting these small satellites into space. Over the next few years they plan to develop a range of rockets powered by hydrogen peroxide, which is particularly suitable for flexible launch opportunities, where a break in the fast changing Scottish weather can be quickly exploited.
Also in Edinburgh, several companies such as Ecometrica, LTS, and Astrosat have been set up to process the masses of data that is collected from space. Ecometrica in particular has been winning contracts with many governments, organisations and industries around the world providing reports providing geospatial data and satellite mapping. In the last few years Ecometrica has been growing fourfold each year, earning a place as the leading Scottish entry on the FT 1000 list of Europe’s fastest growing companies.
Such Data Science is set to become an Edinburgh speciality; the £1.3bn City Deal announced last year has identified a target of training 100,000 data scientists in the next 15 years.
Meanwhile a new rocket launch site has been announced in Sutherland at the top of Scotland with £30m of funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and competing projects are also being mooted based in Shetland and the Western Isles.
The UK Government has set a target of winning 10% of the world’s space business, a target which should be achievable based on our current share of over 6% and rising fast. It is estimated that Scotland currently has over 130 companies earning over £140m per year, approximately 18% of the UK’s space effort and more than double our ‘fare share’ for our size in the UK.
Maybe it is no surprise that when Gene Roddenbury wanted a space engineer for his Star Trek missions he chose to cast a Scotsman – Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott.
But of course he was fictional, but the current chief pilot at Virgin Galactic, David Mackay, has actually been the first Scotsman to take a vehicle into space.
And he hails from Sutherland, home of our proposed first spaceport.