Caledonian Space Race Gathering Pace

13 December 2018

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Who, old enough to remember the era of moon landings, could ever have imagined that Glasgow would become a centre for space technology?

While not quite at the stage of sending the next Neil Armstrong into space, there’s no doubt that it’s at the cutting edge of aerospace development, building more satellites than any other city in Europe.

The space tech industry is one of our fastest growing sectors, with a strong presence in centres such as Skypark, which spans six buildings, and around 4,000 employees pioneering firms like Clyde Space, now owned by Swedish firm AAC Microtec following a £26million deal.

Around 7000 space sector jobs - 18% of the UK’s total employment – are now based in Scotland, with successful space companies from around the world choosing to locate in Glasgow.

This week it was announced that local company Spire Global is developing two pint-sized satellites that will help to monitor weather and climate change from space.

Both were developed under the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ARTES Pioneer programme to measure refracted radio signals passing through the earth’s atmosphere.

Scotland's first satellite, built by ClydeSpace, was launched just four years ago. Since then Alba Orbital and Spire Global have joined the space race, between them putting around 100 satellites in orbit.

Spire makes one satellite a week in its dust-free 'clean room' in a city-centre business centre, but it has ambitions for trebling production.

Traditionally satellites were as large as buses, took up to 15 years to design and build, and had a working life in orbit of around 10 years.

Today “nano-sats” can be built in days for a fraction of the cost and within two years they drop out of their very low, earth orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

Spire currently has 78 nano-sats in orbit, monitoring radio signals from ships and aircraft. The signals allow the company to track 75,000 vessels a day, making it possible to spot illegal fishing, watch out for piracy and to trade on commodities before a cargo ship has reached port.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) is supporting a space incubation centre at The Tontine building in the Merchant City, and has provided support over several years to the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, based at Strathclyde University.

The centre’s role is to raise awareness of the potential of satellite services and data to be used in new and improved products and services in space enabled markets such as forestry, offshore renewable energy and aquaculture.

Funding from UKSA and Glasgow City Council has helped six young companies to locate at The Tontine centre, where they receive business mentoring specific to the space sector, accommodation and administration support and dedicated workshops and expertise.

Funded through a £1.13 billion Glasgow City Region City Deal it's part of a UK-wide network of space incubators that will support the UK’s ambitious plans to achieve 10% of the global space market by 2030.

It may be a few years yet before we see a saltire fluttering on the moon but, until then, Glasgow’s space pioneers will boldly aim for infinity and beyond.  

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