Glasgow – From Ships to The Space Race

It’s been a big week for the space industry, the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon took us another step closer to commercial space travel and it’s now claimed that the US could be sending people into space again as soon as this summer.

Over the last two years, the Scottish city of Glasgow has very much established itself in the ‘space race’ and during this time has built more satellites than any other city in Europe and with nearby Sutherland selected as the site for the UK’s first spaceport, this is only likely to accelerate.

The Scottish city once famous for building the ships that powered the British Empire is now the shining star of Europe’s space industry and it’s growing rapidly. But how did Glasgow evolve from shipbuilding to being at the forefront of the space sector?

To explore this we first need to understand that the space sector in Glasgow is split into two key areas, satellite manufacturing (upstream) and data analysis (downstream).

Satellite Manufacturing (Upstream)

The upstream side to the industry comprises the design, manufacture, launch, and operation of satellites and is really where the city has built its name. The leader in the field is Clyde Space which was founded in 2005 to take advantage of the move to smaller satellites and are pioneers in the CubeSat system.

By 2016 the company was producing 6 satellites a month in their cleanrooms in Glasgow and now employ over 80 ‘Clydespacers’. In 2018 the company joined forces with Swedish company Microtec to consolidate their position in the small and microsatellite sector.

Alba Orbital is the new kid on the block and this year will launch their first 9 satellites after 6 years in development.  Young Founder Tom Walkinshaw (30) has been held up as one of the next generation to push the limits of space and has been profiled by the likes of Wired.

Data Analysis (Downstream)

The growth in satellite production has created opportunities for additional data analysis, enabling the city to now build a thriving downstream industry in recent years.

The downstream side of the industry concerns data gathering, analysis and other information products derived from these satellites.

Start-up, Bird.i, works with the world’s leading satellite operators to provide the most up-to-date satellite imagery available.

Free satellite imagery platforms (such as Google Maps) can be up to 8 years out-of-date in places meaning many strategic business decisions are being based on often inaccurate data. By curating imagery from multiple providers, Bird.i offers assurance that users are consuming the latest (and most accurate) satellite imagery data available in the marketplace, and at a fraction of the cost of purchasing imagery in a more traditional way.

“Historically, accessing imagery of this quality, accuracy, and freshness was tricky given the associated cost and confusion over knowing where and how to purchase it,” said Corentin Guillo, Founder & CEO of Bird.i, “By combining multi sources in the manner we do, our users can view and download the latest high-quality satellite images through our online portal or API.”

Combing both areas is Spire who own and operate one of the largest satellite constellations in the world. Spire identifies, tracks, and predicts the movement of the world’s resources and weather systems so that businesses and governments can make smarter decisions. The company now has 72 satellites in orbit with 30 connected ground stations. This approach has proven to be so successful they now list the UK government as one of their clients.

So what has enabled such a unique sector to grow in Glasgow? It’s a clear combination of talent, support, and capital.

Glasgow boasts three leading universities of which two have had a strong impact on the cities space sector, potentially claiming to even be the starting catalyst.

The benefits for the industry from this come in two ways, both Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities have built world-class innovation facilities focusing on space and this made them accessible to companies of all sizes.

Both universities started offering a range of courses focused on the space industry from undergraduate to Ph.D. level, which has created a highly skilled workforce for companies in a city of under a million people.

Past the support of the universities and the talent, they allow companies to access they’ve also helped to generate a beacon attracting investors into the sector.

Seraphim Capital raised a £70m investment fund to focus solely on the space sector and enjoy a strong presence in the city.

Support for Glasgow comes in many forms and Scottish Development International is key in pulling international companies into the city and connecting new companies with potential global partners.

Their recent research highlights that the space industry in Scotland is on course to be worth £4bn a year by 2030 when you consider the world famous Scottish Whisky industry is worth £4.7bn a year in exports, this is some claim and shows the ambition in the sector and the successes currently being enjoyed. With over 180   now involved in the space industry across Scotland, employing over 7,600 highly skilled individuals, this target doesn’t feel like it’s out of reach either.

With £17.3m being invested in the UK’s new spaceport in Northern Scotland the growth of the industry is likely to continue and at a rapid pace.

With the space race heating up again, with its focus on satellites and commercial opportunities, Glasgow has once again positioned herself at the forefront of innovation and it’s no surprise to see the city taking the lead within the space industry much in the same way she once led the world in shipbuilding.

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