Opening space to everyone

16 May 2019

Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

The Scottish space sector is booming and allowing more people to access space than ever before

Scotland’s space sector is reaching new heights. Based on a recent report on the UK’s space industry as a whole, Scotland is home to 18% of UK space-related jobs and is the second largest regional sector behind London.

Scotland boasts having more than 130 space-related organisations and Glasgow is building more satellites than any other city in Europe. There are even plans in the works to build a Scottish based spaceport in Sutherland that will allow Scottish companies to conceptualise, build and launch satellites all within the country.

What makes the Scottish space industry unique is the attitude it takes towards this once hard-to-access sector of science. Each company that we reached out to had the same message: they hoped to democratise access to space. Instead of space, satellites and more being only accessible to governments and massive corporations, Scottish space companies want anybody to be able to launch satellites, do space related research, and access the world beyond Earth.

To better understand the space scene in Glasgow, I spoke to representatives from two different space companies in the city.

Bird.i is a space company that collects the best and latest satellite imagery from around the world. They then provide these up-to-date, high quality images to businesses and customers at an affordable price. Their images can be used for a variety of purposes including real estate development, construction project management, tracking housing development and monitoring the expansion of mines.

The company was founded by Corentin Guillo, CEO, as a response to the increased popularity of satellite imagery provide by Google. Alice Ritchie, Bird.i’s marketing manager, said: “The popularity of Google’s free satellite imagery was increasing, but the imagery was out of date. It seemed unfortunate that even though new imagery is acquired every day by commercial satellite operators, it wasn’t being shared with the mass market, and instead, users were relying on Google’s imagery which can be up to eight years out of date.”

The Bird.i Portal. Photograph: Bird.i

Ritchie noted that Bird.i’s mission was to democratise the industry and “make these incredible images, and the insights they provide, accessible to everyone.”

Another Glasgow company aiming to democratise the space industry is PocketQube satellite developer, Alba Orbital. Seán Cusick, head of business development, told the Sloth that the company’s founder, Tom Walkinshaw, created the company after finding it difficult to break into the space industry through more traditional means. Walkinshaw started focusing on building tiny “PocketQube” satellites in an effort to democratise access to space.

Satellites are traditionally massive and expensive and historically have been built by government agencies like NASA or the European Space Agency. But thanks to the introduction of “new space” companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, more private citizens are getting involved in the space industry. Though these companies are helping break in to a formerly closed industry, they’re doing so with massive amounts of money. Alba Orbital wants to break things down even further.

Cusick said: “You have all these private companies coming into the space industry, so instead of costing hundreds of millions it’s only costing millions. But we want to go a step ahead of that and we want to get in to the hundreds of thousands or even less.”

He continued: “In addition to building these PocketQubes we also help the PocketQube community by aggregating launches. Instead of paying hundreds of thousands of Euros to send your satellite into space we do it for around €25,000. Even though, for an average person, it’s a lot a lot of money, now startups and companies are able to be able to send their satellites into orbit at a much lower rate.”

The Unicorn-1 PocketQube satellite from Alba Orbital. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

Alba Orbital recently announced that their first launch will take place in late 2019. Cusick hopes that the launch of their Alba Cluster 2 will help change the industry’s perception picosatellites.

The perception is that satellites this size are not very useful, that they’re essentially ‘beep-sats’, they go up into space and they beep. That’s as much as people think they do. But what we’re able to do, especially if we’re copying the idea of miniturasition with mobile phones, we’re able to have the same kind of capabilities as a cube satellite, these 1kg, 2kg, 3kg cubes, in less than a kilogram. We’re expecting more and more requests for these because after this launch we’ll be able to change the false perception that these satellites are useless when in reality they’re not.”

Alba Orbital are players in one side of the satellite industry while Bird.i is part of the other. Ritchie said: “The satellite value chain is divided into two segments: upstream and downstream. Upstream is composed of the manufacturing, launching and operating of satellites, while the downstream side comprises data and other related value-added services. Bird.i is positioned downstream.”

She continued: “Within Scotland there are several high-growth players in both the upstream and downstream areas, which will certainly contribute to Scotland’s status as a true end-to-end space hub. Coupled with the launch of the Sutherland Spaceport, there will certainly be more investment in the industry here in the next 5-10 years.”

Scottish universities are also actively developing new aerospace talent. The University of Glasgow opened a new space research centre on 8 May 2019 that, according to their website, will help facilitate research into micro-spacecraft, technology for drilling on Mars, and robots that will be able to tunnel under the surface of planets.

The University of Strathclyde also houses the Strathclyde Space Institute which is a “multi-disciplinary institute developing frontier research on innovative concepts and solutions for present and future space systems, aerospace transport, satellite applications, the sustainable exploitation and exploration of space and physics in space and from space.” The university also encourages Scottish young people to take interest in space research by running The Scottish Space School for S5 pupils.

Cusick pointed out that Scotland’s universities are a major factor in bolstering the space industry. He said: “You have highly skilled and highly qualified graduates coming from Scottish universities. I think that’s benefited us to be able to hire the best people.”

Ritchie said that Bird.i has also benefited from Glasgow’s considerable graduate community. She said: “Bird.i actually started out in England but we relocated to Scotland to take advantage of the talent pool.”

Ritchie said: “There has been a significant increase in the number of tech start-ups and space companies choosing to operate on Scottish soil, so it’s fantastic to be a part of both of these communities. The tech infrastructure in Scotland is world-renowned, so being a part of its growth and success is really exciting.”

When asked if there were benefits specific to being a Scottish space company, Cusick said: “Glasgow produces more satellites than anywhere else in Europe so we’re able to benefit from this kind of perception within the space industry that ‘Glasgow makes satellites’. That has been very useful with our international clients.

“And obviously support from things like Business Gateway, Scottish Enterprise, as well as to see that the Scottish Government is also very keen on promoting [the space industry] is very good as well.”

As Ritchie pointed out: “It’s an exciting time for space in Scotland.”

Map showing the location of some of the space-related organisations in Glasgow.

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