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New markets: Scottish space industry grows in value to £4bn

Once famous internationally for its ship and train engineering, Scotland is now scaling new heights by building the next generation of rockets and satellites that will blast into space.

A traditional home of engineering and world-beating universities, Scotland is leading the way for the UK’s space industry, with more satellites built there than anywhere outside of California last year.

By 2030, it is expected that the Scottish space industry will grow its value to £4bn with more than 180 organisations and 7,600 employees.

And last year the UK Space Agency announced funding to build the UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland, on the A’Mhoine peninsula, set to launch Scottish-built satellites by early 2020.

VisitScotland recently held INNOVATESPACE at the University of St Andrews, as part of its series of INNOVATETHENATION events, where they discussed the thriving work within the space sector.

This followed the Data Space 2019 conference that saw almost 200 delegates from 17 countries, and more than 80 companies and universities visit the Technology & Innovation Centre (TIC) in Glasgow.

With all this increased economic and academic activity plenty of industry experts are getting excited about the future of Scotland’s space sector and the possibility to deliver transformational growth for the Scottish economy.

Prof Malcolm Macdonald, who teaches at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Scotland has a long heritage of astronomy research, and in space engineering academia, and although there have been large companies here, we are now seeing a sizeable activity nationally.

“In the last ten years we have seen huge growth in the commercial space sector including many start-ups and sizeable companies locating in Scotland.”

The Miri instrument, which was built for the successor to the Hubble space telescope, the James Webb telescope, was built in Edinburgh and completed in 2012.

In July 2014 the first Scottish spacecraft was launched by the UK Space Agency with jobs increasing in the sector around nine percent in the past two years.

It is estimated that while Scotland makes up less than 9 percent of the UK population it accounts for around 18 percent of jobs in the UK space industry.

So what is fuelling this new growth?

Scotland has become a global hub for the building of revolutionary smaller satellites, known as CubeSats, a type of nanosatellite used for space research.

But the Scottish space industry can do everything from design and build rockets to digesting the data when they return, in fact, in the last two years, Glasgow has built more satellites than any other city in Europe.

Dr Ciara McGrath, based at the University of Strathclyde, said the technology could help “revolutionise the world’s response to natural disasters”.

She said: “At the moment satellites tend to follow a set path in orbit around the Earth as it takes a lot of fuel to move them, but the new smaller CubeSats, being built in Glasgow are easier to move around. And there are more being built here than any other city in Europe.

“With easier manoeuvrability, they could be used to learn about natural disasters, such as forest fires and hurricanes, by tracking their movements and rapidly relaying data to first responders.”

Furthermore, in 2021 the UK Space Agency plans to launch its own rockets from a vertical launch site in Sutherland, the first launch site on mainland Europe.

The new growth, Macdonald believes, is thanks to a returning swathe of academics and innovators who want to work and study Scotland.

“It is a very exciting time to be working in the space industry in Scotland. There is a lot of investment, jobs and opportunities here,” said Macdonald.

“When I worked elsewhere you would always bump into Scots that were working in the industry, now many seem to have come home at the same time.

“The arrival of Scottish academics and a renewed space commercial sector has developed an eco-system where graduates do not have to leave.”

The emergence of a “strong commercial sector”

Macdonald, director of the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Satellite Applications, (SoXSA), added Scotland now has a “strong commercial sector for graduates” in addition to good-quality universities

The industry relies on strong collaboration between the commercial sector and researchers in Scottish universities.

For example, Macdonald’s university has collaborated with Clyde Space, a world-leading innovator and supplier of CubeSats.

For the last 12 years Macdonald, who was awarded the 2016 Royal Society of Edinburgh Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane Medal, has seen the company grow from a handful of employees to an operation of more than 100 people.

The success of the space industry in Scotland has seen companies like Spire, a satellite and data analysis company that was founded in San Francisco, set up in Glasgow.

Since 2014 more than 90 satellites have been built by Spire, and Macdonald said the industry has seen new business arrive here from “all over the world”.

He said: “Spire has said that it has been very easy for them to get senior members of staff to move from Silicon Valley to Glasgow. They have found the quality of life here in Glasgow to be perfect for them.”