Outer space is not a niche field. Central to the Scottish and British economies, and ever more essential to our way of life, it is productive, innovative and growing. Scotland has a strong hand when it comes to the space-related industry and its applications. It lies in a geographically favourable position, is institutionally well-endowed and is increasingly funded. The Arctic, as any other region, will be ever-more dependent on satellite technologies, and represents a key area for the burgeoning Scottish space industry. Space, then, is a 21st-century mine from which Scotland can draw greatly.
The space sector as an industry is highly productive, featuring in the supply chain of a significant portion of UK output. In 2018, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) supported £264 billion of GDP, meteorological satellite services £159 billion and telecommunications £117 billion. There is also scope for growth, with a Government target to capture 10% of the global market by 2030 (up from 6.5% today).
Scotland has established a strong reputation in the field. In the period 2016/17, the nation was home to an estimated 132 space-related organisations, fifth in the list of the UK’s regions, and which generated income of £140 million. The headquarters of 83 organisations were based in Scotland, again the fifth most. Glasgow manufactures more satellites than any other city in Europe, and the Scottish Government is as ambitious, aiming for the industry to be worth £4 billion by 2030.
A sign of Scotland’s attractiveness is seen in employment figures. Despite generating 0.9% of the UK’s space-related income, it holds 18% of the country’s workforce as firms headquartered elsewhere (especially London and the South East) run considerable operations in Scotland.
Space policy in the UK is legislated and implemented centrally from Westminster. The UK Space Agency coordinates Government funding and its interests, with key agencies such as Innovate UK in Swindon and the Satellite Applications Catapult centre based in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Efforts have been made to distribute resources among specific locales. The Catapult has established five regional centres of excellence, including in Glasgow, to focus more specifically on opportunities to support space-related SMEs and anchor investment in Scotland.
There is a strong institutional ecosystem in Scotland able to support this growing industry. The Universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde have extensive space-related research programmes. Finance is coordinated by organisations such as the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Space Applications, and Space Network Scotland.
The UK’s prospective spaceports. Source: LaunchUK, Leading the commercial space age, UK Space Agency.
Scotland made headlines in July 2018 with the announcement that the A’Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland would be home to the UK’s (and Europe’s) first vertical spaceport. With £50 million of UK Space Agency funding, satellites and payloads are due to reach polar and sun synchronous orbits from the early 2020s. This is alongside the additional £2 million announced for horizontal space ports, with Scottish bids at Glasgow Prestwick and Campbeltown.
As with any major infrastructure project, hurdles have presented themselves. There is local opposition and refusals to dispose of land to the Sutherland project, while there are various local environment-protection schemes in place. Initially overlooked for public funding, the Shetland Space Centre embarked on a mission to find support instead from the private sector for a launch site in Unst.
This has reaped rewards, with backing secured from the private sector, including defence giant US Lockheed Martin and Europe’s ArianeSpace, while the Highlands and Islands Enterprise has recently invested in feasibility studies in the Shetland Space Centre.
Another bid for a vertical launch site has also been assembled for Spaceport 1 on the Western Isles, with the support of its local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Competition is an indication of the strengths of the far north as opposed to an unnecessary distraction or duplication of efforts. The high northerly latitudes aid efforts to reach desired orbits easily, while the sparsely populated land beneath reduces the risk from falling debris.
It also underlines the need for Scotland to engage seriously with the Arctic when it comes to space-based applications.
Norway is just one Arctic state investing in its communications infrastructure. Source:The Barents Observer
The Arctic is fertile ground for space. Research institutions use satellites to monitor the region’s environment, including sea-level changes and ice coverage. Shipping, consumers and governments rely on meteorological satellites for weather forecasts. Increased trans-polar shipping can be tracked by GNSS, a distinctly feasible need as summer Arctic sea-ice levels continue to fall. Defence is another use of governments. In September this year, China will launch the Ice Pathfinder, a remote sensing satellite to monitor environmental conditions, weather and for shipping navigation.
Broadband connectivity in the Arctic has until recently not been a priority for governments or commercial enterprises. More temperate latitudes are easier to reach through undersea cables, and quite simply the Arctic is not well-populated. As enterprises eye up remaining areas underserved by communication infrastructure, however, this is beginning to change.
OneWeb, a London-based start-up, has announced it will launch satellites to provide internet to areas north of the 60th Parallel from January 2020 – initially in Alaska and Norway – before providing 24-hour coverage from 2021. In Canada, where 15% of the population do not have high-speed broadband, Huawei is looking to provide satellite coverage, as well as Canada’s Telesat. Norway is investing in communications satellites for its more northerly regions, scheduled to be launched in 2022.
There is certainly scope for cross-border collaboration with Scotland’s Arctic neighbours. It is welcoming to see plans for a partnership between the Shetland Space Centre and the Faroe Islands, with infrastructure provided by Føroya Tele for 5G technologies and high-speed broadband, while the Shetland Space Centre will facilitate a ground station on the Faroe Islands.
The challenges posed by Brexit cannot be ignored, not least because there remains much uncertainty around what relationship the UK will have with the EU. The UK’s membership of ESA is distinct from the EU, and the Government has made it clear it wants to remain an active partner in ESA. The UK being prevented from accessing Galileo is a high-profile example of potential difficulties, although it should be observed that both Iceland and Norway, non-EU Arctic states, have negotiated forms of access to the Galileo and Copernicus programmes.
There have been calls for a national UK space strategy, especially as the UK prepares to leave the EU. Industry has led efforts to raise domestic investment and capabilities alongside the UK’s ESA contributions, an area where the UK lags countries such as France and Italy. This would drive momentum, particularly for cross-border collaborations that offer such potential in the Arctic.
The UK has only recently begun to consider its strategic approach to the Arctic. There is not much of an explicit focus on space across the British Government’s 2013 or 2018 policy frameworks, nor in Parliamentary reports. There is a risk that space remains overlooked. Scotland should benefit from a regulatory environment conducive to commercial applications in space, complemented by funding specific to Scotland’s research expertise.