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Scotland’s space sector is launching sustainability insights

19 Feb 2024 • 6 minute read

Scotland’s growing space sector is focused on sustainability, with data being harnessed to understand climate change.

Satellite being put in orbit above Earth

Sustainability is a key consideration in the development of Scotland’s space industry, with action being taken to overcome key challenges. The Scottish space sector’s sustainable space roadmap, published in November 2022, is the first of its kind in the world.
The roadmap addresses issues such as the environmental implications of manufacturing and launching satellites. In addition, the document highlights the growing need for businesses to deploy satellite data for environmental monitoring and climate analytics.

Data insights from rocket launches in Scotland

Five Scottish launch facilities are now in development or advanced planning. All of them are expanding their launch capabilities. Yet a key goal is to learn more about the challenges facing the planet and businesses.

“The purpose of a rocket launch is not just to launch rockets, but to enable a range of improvements to life on Earth,” says Luke Vanstone, UK business development manager for Benchmark Space Systems. 
Vanstone emphasises the need to keep sustainability at the forefront of development and make more environmentally friendly choices. “That’s challenging. But many companies, universities, agencies and government sectors are doing this with sustainability in mind,” he adds.

Powering the space economy

GlobalData reports that the space economy has grown significantly in recent years. The market was valued at approximately $450 billion in 2022 and is projected to be worth up to $1 trillion by 2030. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 6% to 10% between 2022 and 2030. 
Space technologies enable innovations and practices that encourage long-term growth and resource efficiency.

Pryde agrees. “I’m working a lot with these space-data downstream companies,” she says. “There is such a range, from people working in conservation counting elephants to supporting energy transition, as well as increasing agriculture productivity and monitoring landslides, wildfires and floods which are all important to the financial services sector.”

Sustainable space launches 

Despite numerous contributions to net-zero objectives, chemical propellant-powered space missions are not considered "green”. So, how can this industry become more environmentally conscious? 
“There’s a lot of work ongoing already,” points out Vanstone. “For example, charters to encourage a more sustainable space sector, with policies to ensure satellite operators leave orbit on a required timeline. Or even technologies that allow for mission extensions of satellites and the reusability of assets, like returning certain stages of rocket engines, so you don’t have to build and throw away every time.
“There are also innovative and inventive ways of manufacturing in space, and then returning to Earth. It’s a flourishing and embryonic industry that could have an impact on carbon emissions in the future.”
For the rockets, Vanstone says companies such as Benchmark are making more progressive, non-toxic fuel choices. Combined with this is the use of more sustainable use of existing orbits. 
“Take your propulsion system. A good interface will be able to dock to a satellite and refuel – what’s called mission extension,” he says. “Then some of your large satellites can stay in orbit rather than being replaced.”
Challenges in orbit also include the risk of collision with space traffic and debris. “Orbital management is growing in importance,” explains Vanstone. “Part of the reason is that constellations – such as Starlink satellites – are becoming more frequent because they offer extremely useful fundamental technologies. Infrastructure like connectivity helps to give internet access to remote locations across the world.

“One example – relevant to what we do at Benchmark – is in terms of an accessible orbit and ensuring satellite operators can make sustainable choices when they send their satellites up. You might take propulsive capability with you on a mission, so you can do things like deorbit a satellite, potentially return it, and reuse it in the future, and active debris removal, otherwise, your satellites may become space litter (debris).”

Funding for Scottish space innovations

The Scottish Enterprise Net Zero Framework for Action for 2023-24 outlines the country's plans to support businesses in innovation and scaling up. This includes the transition to a net zero economy as part of the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET).

Compared with the 2015-16 baseline, Scotland has reduced CO2 emissions by 341,000 tonnes from supported businesses and projects as of 2022. Furthermore, Scottish Enterprise has so far funded 12 initiatives that use space data to support the sustainability drive.
One of these is TownRock Energy. The company uses satellite imagery and Earth observation (EO) data to de-risk deep geothermal initiatives in Scotland. 
Space Intelligence received funding for its Annual Carbon Mapper, a granular biomass change-detection technology. Another recipient was D-CAT for its project with Scotland's Rural College (SRUC). The project used satellite remote sensing to enhance crop classification and track real-time growth and development.
Meanwhile, GSI builds on existing technology to develop a satellite-based solution to accurately map the key features of peatlands. Terrabotics is another recipient, using space data to track and monitor North Sea flaring and venting. 

Clyde Space, one of Scotland's first space companies, also secured funding for its eNEXUS project. This project will explore creating a database of global shipping emissions using satellite data in conjunction with other sources. 

Pryde says Scottish Enterprise supports about 35 companies that are using EO techniques.

Fostering space innovations and talent

Scottish universities play an essential role in areas such as research and providing talent. “Universities are a critical part of any economy,” says Vanstone. “Specifically, the space industry, for stimulating innovation and new thinking. Some of the most innovative companies started as university spinouts.” 

Scottish skills and innovation were also used in the development of the new James Webb space telescope.

“I work very closely with the University of Edinburgh,” says Pryde. “Edinburgh is now known as the ‘Space Data Capital of Europe’.

Scottish Enterprise has strong connections with the country’s 14 universities. The agency helps to connect and support young entrepreneurs while tapping into the insight of internationally respected academics.

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