With the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing fast approaching, the global space sector is booming and, in Scotland, there is a wave of enthusiasm building over what this growing industry could mean for the country.
Daniel Smith, director of Edinburgh-based space tech company, Skyrora, believes Scotland’s academic institutions, its talented people and the burgeoning technology sector can all play a crucial role in establishing Scotland as a commercial space hub.
The foundations for this have already been laid, with more than 130 space organisations operating in Scotland. Combined, these companies help to generate a combined income of £140 million.
Glasgow boasts that it builds more satellites than any other European city and, earlier this year, Spire Global announced the launch of its 100th Glasgow-built satellite – a landmark moment for both the city and Scotland as a whole. Overall, the nation’s space sector could be worth £4 billion by 2030, according to Scottish Government estimates.
“We should all be extremely excited by the possibilities of the commercial space sector,” he says. “There are a lot of benefits that come from space exploration.”
The prospect of Scotland playing its role in a new age of space exploration is exciting, Smith insists. However, the various opportunities and achievements along the way are what should be raising pulses.
In 2019, the very fabric of our day-to-day lives has been shaped by space exploration. Many technologies that are now commonplace are at our disposal because of the space race of the 1950s and onward; CT scans, water purification methods and even scratch-resistant lenses for spectacles.
“It’s all the things that happen before you get there that change our everyday lives and make them better,” he explains. “It’s not just about landing on the moon, it’s all the achievements, all the advancements you have to make in order to get to that kind of culmination or point.”
“All of these opportunities along the way help to enrich our lives. There are a lot of parallels between then [the 1950s & 60s] and today. We’re doing what we’re doing in Scotland to put satellites into orbit and there are so many benefits that come from that.”
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While the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s roared on beneath the spectre of the Cold War, the landscape has changed drastically since then.
Today, the space race is more than just superpower versus superpower; it’s corporation versus corporation, Smith believes. And while the thought of multinational corporations competing for dominance in space seems reminiscent of the plot from a SciFi thriller, in the long run, this will be beneficial, he insists.
Satellites orbiting Earth at this very moment are helping to shape our understanding of the world we live in, examine how the planet is changing due to global warming and assisting in a myriad of other tasks such as guiding our vehicle’s GPS or monitoring weather systems and crops.
This is a huge market, and if commercial entities are capable and willing of leading the latest charge into the great beyond, then we should embrace the opportunity.
“In the 1960s it was mainly countries engaging in a space race. What we have now is a similar situation, just with commercial companies in a race. I think it’s great because by making it commercial, this creates a whole new market,” Smith explains.
“This is an area that can really benefit from being looked at from a commercial perspective. For example, trying to reduce costs by changing the weight of items in a payload, or even just doing something differently than the government-style approach.
By enabling companies to engage in this new-age space race, Smith says we are enabling “endless” amounts of innovation. These trailblazing organisations are continually trying to save money – and to make money, which is the key aspect of this – so naturally, they will strive to develop new ideas and ways of doing things.
“I think, in this regard, it helps to push things forward faster when you have companies doing it because then it really becomes a race. One which has a great number of entities vying to enter,” he says.
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Grand aspirations of establishing itself as a prominent space hub are great for a nation of Scotland’s size, and Smith thinks Scotland has the potential to punch far above its weight. However, questions linger over how it will truly impact the country.
Will the sector benefit communities around which the proposed spaceports will be located? Will native Scottish firms have an opportunity to ride this wave of innovation?
Smith certainly believes so. The commercial space sector won’t just benefit a few, and its impact has the potential to reverberate throughout Scotland’s industries and various sectors; from manufacturing to data analytics, the rewards will be reaped by many.
“I think it will be hugely beneficial to a whole number of areas. There are a lot of transferable skills right across engineering and across all kinds of areas that we can now utilise,” he explains.
“These are new markets for business in Scotland, business who perhaps weren’t seeing as much custom as they were in the oil and gas sector. Or, maybe they’re developing something for a completely different sector which they now realise is good for space.”
Scotland boasts all the necessary skills, industries and universities needed to fuel the development of the space sector, he adds. Noting that this is only when looking at ‘launch’. The benefits, applications and impact extend further when one considers the satellite manufacturing aspect or downstream data.
“The whole ecosystem is there in Scotland right now and it’s going to keep growing. This means that no matter what you’re doing in your business, there’s a chance for you to get involved in the space sector because there will likely be a part of it that pertains to what you do,” he asserts.
“In terms of the downstream with data, in Edinburgh, there is a lot going on and companies are dealing with the data that comes from satellites. So we do have that ecosystem and it is developing fast and growing. More companies, more startups and so on. The European Space Agency also has a presence now in Edinburgh too,” Smith adds.
Scotland’s geography and its agility as a nation will also be a key component in the success of the sector moving forward. Given the focus of the space sector here, which will largely gravitate around launching small satellites, Scotland is perfectly placed and perfectly sized. There are few places in Europe where this can be done, Smith explains, which sets the country apart.
“At the moment if you build a satellite in Glasgow and want to launch it, you need to send it to the US or Australia,” he says. “The logistics involved in that are a bit of a nightmare – the cost of insurance for getting it there alone is immense.
“Whereas, if you can just take your satellite up the road, so to speak, there’s a huge benefit to that,” Smith jests. “So, we’ve got the geography on our side, we’ve got the satellites, we’ve got the data stream and we’ve got the people – Who better? I would say”