CAVU Aerospace UK Ltd

Published on 30/01/2024

Scotland has its eyes on the skies.

We build more small satellites than anywhere else in Europe and are home to one of the continent’s largest informatics centres, crunching data sent back from space. And, with five different spaceports in the works, we could begin launching satellites as early as this year.
The Scottish Government wants this country to become “Europe’s leading space nation” by 2030 and Scotland is crucial to the UK Government’s plan to build “one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world”.
But evidence given to MPs has raised questions about whether government has taken the right actions to prepare for this giant leap for mankind. “You’re opening a can of worms there,” says Scott Hammond, deputy CEO of SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst, Shetland. “The UK has published a space strategy and so has the Scottish Government. I think I would like to see a little more resources behind it because otherwise it’s just paper, really.”
Hammond’s operation, nestled in the north east of the island, is the first licensed spaceport for vertical launches in the UK. Four similar sites, ranging from Sutherland’s A’Mhoine peninsula to Macrihanish near Campbeltown, also aim to shoot for the stars. The RAF shut up shop in Unst in 2006 and the spaceport is expected to create 140 local jobs, plus around 100 more elsewhere in Scotland. The first launches could come as early as this year, with satellites launched into sun-synchronous low Earth polar orbits to beam back data. A replica longhouse and ship nearby reveal how Unst’s geography opened it up to the explorers of the past, making it a Viking outpost. Now it represents an entry point to another frontier.
Permission for rocket launches came from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in December after £30m-worth of development. “Granting SaxaVord their licence is an era-defining moment for the UK space sector,” said the CAA’s director of space regulation, Tim Johnson, and “marks the beginning of a new chapter for UK space”. But the CAA green light is just one of many permissions launch firms must seek in a regulatory framework that includes both devolved and reserved agencies. “To me,” Hammond told Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee when asked whether government has the right strategy in place, “there’s almost too many cooks involved.”
The comments came during an evidence session as part of the committee’s inquiry into the space sector’s contribution to the Scottish economy. This innovative, high-tech sector created an estimated total income of £254m in 2017-18, supporting Gross Value Added of £880m and representing 14 per cent of the UK’s total space industry contribution. Figures for 2019-20 show one fifth (8,440) of all UK space sector jobs are based here, with activity spread out across the country. Glasgow has established itself as a centre for satellite production, with a specialism in small, light cubesat technology, while Edinburgh has a growing reputation for excellence in informatics. There’s excellence too in Dundee, and it’s thought that Aberdeen’s oil and gas workforce could provide the highly skilled labour the sector will depend upon if its sought-after growth is realised.
“We have everything here,” says Professor Massimiliano Vasile, director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde. “Scotland can go from concept to launch to operations to services without asking anybody else. We have the satellite manufacturing, payload providers, launch sites.
“The space sector has grown much faster than people know, and it is much more important than they realise.”
Vasile, a multi-award-winning expert in design, computational tools and analysis for the space sector, was attracted to Scotland after a stint at the European Space Agency. “I realised there was a lot going on in Scotland,” he says, praising the “level of innovation and new ideas and discovery”. “It has a unique position in Europe. That’s probably what’s kept me here,” he goes on.
“Brexit made everything much more difficult – it’s more difficult to recruit students and staff and we’ve had problems accessing funding and collaborating with other countries – but Scotland is still the best place to be in the UK. If the Scottish Government is able to support this complete ecosystem, everyone is going to benefit.”
Matters directly relating to outer space are reserved to Westminster, while others affecting the sector, like planning and higher education, are devolved to Holyrood. Both governments have a stake in this, and both have space strategies. The UK Government’s strategy includes a venture capital framework to bring in private investment, and it’s claimed that £1 in every £8 put into space by private funders is spent in the UK, making it second only to the US. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s paper, launched in 2021, sets out plans to capture a £4bn share of the global market by 2030, creating as many as 20,000 jobs.