Scotland’s Giant Leap

Scotland will soon be home to five spaceports: here’s why it’s time for Scotland’s otherworldly ‘historic moment’.

Picture a rocket launch. Most likely your mind takes you somewhere in North America, but it’s time to start thinking closer to home – how about Scotland? The UK’s spaceport programme has proposed that five out of seven desired launch sites be in Scotland, and Space Scotland, an initiative that began in 2016, hopes the Scottish space sector will be worth £4 billion by 2030. Despite the Scottish Highlands prompting more memories of rainy childhood holidays than glamorous rocket launches, it’s far more logical than you might imagine. Second only to California, Glasgow is the largest manufacturer of small satellites in the world, whilst Edinburgh hosts 170 data science companies. Indeed, SaxaVord spaceport and Orbex’s spaceport in Sutherland have visions to propel Scotland into the stratosphere, so there must be something about Scotland; Californian company Squire produces their satellites in Scotland, proving our potential in the space industry.

Why Scotland? Are Americans just reconnecting en masse with the 1/16 of Scottish ancestry they’ve found in their family tree? Part of me does wonder whether there’s a bit of that, but Scotland’s geography can give us a much more sensible (and less judgemental) answer. Small satellites, the sector Scotland is specialising in, inhabit low Earth polar obits, and the Northern coast provides easy access to this. Essentially, with an existing growing space industry boasting strong tech and manufacturing capability, Scotland will become a one stop shop for future rocketry, providing a shorter supply chain as a bonus.

Okay, so maybe hold off dreaming about being plucked out of your degree to become an astronaut, small satellites don’t quite mean we’ll be seeing a saltire on Mars just yet. These satellites are often used for intelligence – Earth Blox, an Edinburgh based company, uses the information fed back to track deforestation and climate change, working to speed up natural disaster response time. Similarly, Eolas Insight works with the European Space Agency (ESA) to track elephant migration in Mozambique. Soon, human space exploration may not seem quite so distant.

Many of the things that small satellites could be used for relate to Earth observation. Should we spend more time figuring out terrestrial solutions to terrestrial problems, instead of colonising space? Space travel raises lots of questions: when the Sutherland spaceport was first proposed, the council received 457 objections to the plans, to 118 votes in support. Scotland, more than most places, will be all too aware of the dangers of unsustainable industry; where oil was once a prosperous venture that brought huge employment, it now brings mixed emotions in a time where governments are moving towards lower emissions. 

Uniquely, the moon, and space exploration by extension, is a place where politics and science can blur together. Neil Bowles, a professor of planetary science at Oxford, noted that the moon is seen as a “political target” as well as a scientific one. The space race, spanning from the 1950s through to the mid-1970s, marked an intellectual and technological battle. In 1962 JFK declared the American goal to go to the moon as a commitment to American patriotism and freedom; this month India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission was successful: the Vikram lander touched down to cries of “Jai Hind” meaning “Long live India”. The patriotism that continues to surround national space programs, of which there were 72 in 2021, suggests that space exploration isn’t solely driven by scientific development. It could be argued that the developments that rise out of space research are happy side effects to human curiosity. There is clear value in space travel though: the International Space Station researches projects from human health to materials, looking at behaviour without gravity’s influence.

So can we do it differently? Massimiliano Vasile, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Strathclyde, has commented that the space sector has remained relatively unregulated, and as a result vessels are built to dispose of and not to repair or recycle. Scottish company Orbex named its micro-launcher rocket, powered by renewable biofuel, as “the world’s most environmentally friendly rocket”, finding the carbon footprint to be 96% lower than fossil fuel alternatives. Chris Lamour, CEO of Orbex hopes that “much tighter regulations” around the use of polluting fuels will soon be enforced.

Another area of concern with the rise of satellite launches is space junk. By 2030 it’s projected there will be 60,000 satellites orbiting the earth – at present there are approximately 9,000. More satellites mean more collisions, creating more debris, and putting the innovation Scotland is so excited about, at risk. At the University of Strathclyde, the ESCAPE project is developing to advise how many objects can safely co-exist in Earth’s orbit. It’s clear that the space sector needs disrupting – groups such as Space Scotland are set on grouping together voices, creating an alliance for UK Spaceport sites to discuss regulations and greater international collaboration. When Orbex launched its Prime rocket, Ian Annett, the then deputy CEO of the UK space agency, declared us as “on the cusp of a historic moment”. Scotland’s “end to end” market, research capability and new focus on sustainability in the space sector is surely about to lift off. 

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