Scotland's space industry: How the UK government is helping this burgeoning high-tech industry to take off – Iain Stewart

On the surface of the Moon, Neil Armstrong gave voice to the ethos of space exploration: through a series of small steps, we can achieve giant leaps.
The first launch of a satellite from the UK could be from the Saxa Vord spaceport on Shetland next year (Picture: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)The first launch of a satellite from the UK could be from the Saxa Vord spaceport on Shetland next year (Picture: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
The first launch of a satellite from the UK could be from the Saxa Vord spaceport on Shetland next year (Picture: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

The latest of those modest, yet essential, steps towards the heavens has come with new regulations paving the way for spaceflight and satellite launches from UK soil.

This legislation provides a regulatory framework for the UK space industry, helping tap into a potential £4 billion of market opportunities over the next decade, creating thousands of jobs and benefiting communities right across the UK. It’s particularly positive news for Scotland where we are front-runners in a new era of commercial activity in space.

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It’s part of the careful groundwork to build a space sector that can compete globally. The UK government has established a National Space Council as a Cabinet committee and is bringing forward a UK space strategy which will help this cutting-edge industry reach maximum potential.

Our space strategy will drive and sustain growth; increase the UK’s global influence in science, security and trade through space; deliver space-based infrastructure to enable world-class scientific work; and ensure the UK government has access to capabilities that are integral to our national safety, security, and critical national infrastructure.

That all-important first launch of a satellite from the UK could be from the Saxa Vord spaceport on Shetland next year.

It may seem scarcely credible – surely Scotland’s flight ambitions are more about the Costas, not the cosmos?

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Yet I had a taste of the earthbound reality of an emerging and exciting industry in Glasgow as the Department of International Trade launched Made in Britain: Exported to the World, a campaign to generate domestic prosperity via markets worldwide and exports of all sorts.

I met an engineer from AAC Clyde Space who builds satellites in the city. In the best traditions, she even brought along one they’d made earlier. Instead of some massive, spiky, Sputnik, it was about the size of a shoebox and, even to my untrained eye, was clearly a piece of precision engineering.

And such is the pace of technology, you can pack far more computing power into these little boxes than was in the Apollo 11 capsule which, in 1969, took Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon and back.

Small satellites are in big demand as their potential applications seem as limitless as space. They can help us with navigation; look down on the atmosphere and provide essential data about big issues such as climate change and day-to-day things such as whether it’s likely to be sunny this weekend. They can underpin better communications and take pictures of agricultural land to help promote efficiency.

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Elsewhere, with more equipment in orbit, there are challenges but also opportunities. Space junk, often defunct satellites or the detritus of old launches, poses a collision risk. Innovative solutions are being worked up and we may yet see the space-borne equivalent of the AA or RAC towing decrepit kit to the celestial hard shoulder.

As well as drafting the regulations for British space activity, the UK government has taken another step towards becoming the only nation in Europe with a domestic space launch capability by appointing the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as the industry regulator.

With nearly 50 years of experience, the CAA has a proven track record in overseeing our aviation sector, one of the safest in the world, as well as experience in regulating rocket activities under the Air Navigation Order 2016.

It’s another of the key building blocks as we carry out the groundwork that will support emerging space activity – including sub-orbital space tourism and, it is predicted, new transport methods such as hypersonic flight.

In the shorter term, UK launch capability will provide British companies, as well as customers from around the world, with direct access to space and will boost jobs in the services and supply chains which will develop.

Already, UK Space Agency figures show that in 2018/19, compared to 2016/17, the number of space-related organisations in Scotland rose 31 per cent, with the Scottish space sector employing over 7,500 people.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise, as just one example, anticipate that Space Hub Sutherland will be capable of supporting around 250 full-time equivalent posts throughout the wider Highlands and Islands, including an estimated 44 full-time equivalent posts at the site itself.

UK Space Agency investment in Scotland includes £31.5 million to establish Scottish space launch services and is also helping the Scottish Space Leadership Council to identify opportunities for Scottish space businesses and develop a comprehensive plan to continue to grow their sector.

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No endeavour at the cutting edge of technology is without risk and space is no different. A key concern for the sector has been insurance requirements and liabilities arrangements for launch from the UK. The UK government has listened and confirmed the Space Industry Act will mean that operators will not be facing unlimited liability for licensed activities.

Instead, an operator’s liabilities will be determined using something called a ‘modelled insurance requirement’ approach, which will tailor the amount of insurance required to the risks of each launch. This will reduce operator costs compared with a fixed limit, while ensuring proper cover is in place.

Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon, of course, but he was also a pilot and engineer with ancestral links to Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway. I think he would have been delighted to see Scotland following so innovatively where he went so boldly.

Iain Stewart is Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South and a Scotland Office minister

This article has been corrected to state that Space Hub Sutherland, rather than the Saxa Vord space hub on Shetland as previously stated, is anticipated to be capable of supporting 44 full-time jobs and around 250 full-time equivalents in the wider area

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