Scotland Heading Towards a Future in Space

Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

It's been an exciting past few weeks for Scotland, and the UK in general, in terms of the space sector. There's been lots going on, on both a local and international scale.

One of the biggest pieces of news comes from local Edinburgh company, Skyrora, who have been in the headlines quite a few times in recent months with news such as their environmentally friendly Ecosene fuel, and the first UK full static test fire of the Skylark L rocket in 50 years.

However, the latest from them is actually a historic launch for Scotland. In amongst all the preparations for the SpaceX Crewed Dragon launch, Skyrora was getting ready to launch their very own Skylark Nano from Shetland.

For those of you unfamiliar with the space sector, Shetland may seem like a bit of a strange place to launch rockets from. After all, it's Scotland, where the weather isn't known for being great, and Shetland isn't exactly known for being the easiest place to get to.

Scotland actually provides great access to both polar and sun-synchronous orbits without flying over land inhabited by humans. The main reason for this is that rockets are most efficient with a direct ascent route, meaning that ideally, they should not pass over an inhabited piece of land, as falling debris could pose a danger to those communities.

As well, Scotland's high northern location makes it even easier to reach orbit.

When thinking about the north of Scotland, you generally think of rolling, uninhabited hills, so where better to have a spaceport?

This leads us to the great debate of propellants (fuel). If you use fuels such as kerosene, which do not require cryogenics, then it is possible to keep the fuel loaded until a suitable launch window appears. Essentially, cryogenic fuels need to be at a very low temperature, otherwise the fuel will have to be unloaded if launches are called off. This is why American launches are critically timed, as they use liquid hydrogen, which is a cryogenic liquid, and needs to be unloaded when launches are postponed.

A great piece of news for Skyrora, as well as other companies looking to launch their products, is that the Highland Council's North Planning Applications Committee announced approval for the Highlands and Islands Enterprise plan to build a spaceport in Sutherland, way up north in the Highlands. The aim is to be able to support 12 launches per year, alongside the creation of new jobs.

Daily Mail render of the Sutherland spaceport (slightly outdated as predicted launch numbers have increased)

This news means that small commercial satellites and launch vehicles designed and manufactured in Scotland, such as from Skyrora, could be heading into orbit within the next few years.

This, amongst the news of the UK-US Technology Safeguards Agreement really signify an exciting point in the British space sector, as we race towards a brand new space age, with the UK becoming a top contender in the area.

2018 UK Space Sector report infographic from the UK Space Agency and London Economics

This agreement between the UK and US will enable American companies to launch their own small satellites from UK soil for the first time ever, and will allow extremely sensitive launch technology to cross the Atlantic.

You might be wondering, why is there all this buzz about the UK in space? I will admit, the UK has never been known to be as big of a space powerhouse as say, America, but there's been substantial work throughout recent history. Albeit, it hasn't been as well-documented as the Space Shuttle or ISS missions.

Black Arrow- the only UK rocket, until now. Courtesy of Flickr.

Ever since 2009, with the creation of the UK Space Agency, the UK has been working hard to establish themselves within the global space sector, through building a strong and robust supply chain. From production, to launch vehicles, to postorbital services, and now a future spaceport, the UK has certainly proven to the world worthy of being part of the new space movement. The country is already a global hub for satellite manufacture, with Glasgow leading the charge, and nearly every space component can be built in the UK.

One of the buzz phrases lately has been "space ecosystem," which is actually quite simple when you think about it. Just in the way that a forest relies on a bunch of different factors to thrive, so does the space sector. It just helps when all the different components of the space sector are nearby. These components include satellites, launch vehicles (rockets), data processing companies (like Ecometrica, who use space data to help with sustainability initiatives).

Being able to design, manufacture, launch, and then analyse the data within a single country is a huge undertaking, but also majorly beneficial. The UK is excitedly proclaiming that the country will be the ideal space ecosystem, with all sorts of services from start-to-end. This means that systems could be designed, manufactured, launched, and that data processed, all within the bounds of the UK.

Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh Bayes Centre

Currently, there is a lot of focus on space data, and the Edinburgh: Space Data Capital podcast has done a fantastic job in highlighting some of the amazing initiatives in the city.

Moving forward, a combination of space data, launch services, and manufacturing will cement the UK's position as a global leader as the world works towards utilising space to help people here on earth. Who knows, maybe Scotland will be launching astronauts in the future?

What area of the UK space ecosystem are you most excited about?


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Mechanical Engineering student. Future space engineer. Writer. Runner. Passionate about getting more women into STEM.

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