Optimism is stratospheric | Interview with Daniel Smith of AstroAgency and Space Scotland

Scotland’s thriving space sector is now aligning with the country’s Net Zero goal, writes Nan Spowart.

Daniel Smith, Founder at AstroAgency, Director of Space Scotland
Daniel Smith, Founder at AstroAgency, Director of Space Scotland

Scotland’s reach for the stars is not going unnoticed in the rest of the world.

Those outside the sector may not yet be aware that this country is about to achieve "end-to-end" capability in the space industry, but there is growing awareness globally about the innovations being made here.

There are now over 150 companies in the Scottish space sector covering everything from building satellites and launch vehicles to developing launch ports and analysing data that is transmitted back from space. Scotland is also at the forefront of space sustainability and the efforts to find solutions to the pollution and debris caused by the sector are attracting attention from major players like the European Space Agency and Nasa.

Space Scotland, a not-for-profit industry body representing the sector, has a dedicated Environmental Task Force with more than 20 member companies on that working group alone.

A key driver of the initiative is Daniel Smith of AstroAgency who realised that to move forward, the sector had to be part of Scotland's net zero prospects.

"You'd be forgiven for initially thinking that space couldn't contribute to net zero goals because of pollution from rocket launches and the debris floating around in space," he said.

"But, because we are a close-knit community working to find differentiators for our commercial space sector to succeed, we can share examples of genuinely sustainable space initiatives. It's like a living laboratory where we can innovate and test, building sustainability in from the beginning."

In 2020, the task force put out a call for environmental challenges for space to solve and schools, universities and businesses responded with around 30 different challenges for the group.

"My colleague Kristina Tamane and volunteers across industry, academia and government ran workshops and explored solutions, then showcased the results at an event attended by Friends of the Earth, the European Space Agency, UK Space Agency and Scotland's First Minister," said Daniel. "Now, as many countries shape their own space sustainability strategies, they're looking to us because we've led by example."

Around a year after the first workshops, the Scottish Space Strategy was created which included a dedicated pillar on sustainability. This was followed 12 months later by the world's first space sustainability roadmap drawn up by AstroAgency and partners Optimat for Space Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. "The roadmap helps guide the Task Force and is not just another charter or action plan, but deliberately contains work packages to ensure tangible outputs" said Daniel.

"There are some really bold points within it, including longer term ideas that link progress on sustainability with eligibility for funding and examining how companies can take a broader approach to reducing their environmental impact. "We want

results for our industry and for our planet. Everybody we've engaged with liked the idea of dealing with environmental aspects head-on."

Until now talk around space sustainability has tended to focus on the debris from old satellites and rockets that is circulating in space, but the distinctiveness of the roadmap is that it covers everything from developing more sustainable rocket fuels to making sure supply chains are also playing their part. Its uniqueness, combined with the importance of satellite data for supporting environmental protection, is the reason that Daniel was invited to Cop28 alongside the First Minister, having already given talks to the UN, Portuguese Space Agency, Swiss, South Korean and Australian governments.

Space Scotland has also prepared a guidance pack on equality, diversity and inclusivity to help recruit more people into the burgeoning industry.

"In my day-job at AstroAgency we support more than 50 companies and seven governments to promote their space activity, but Scotland is the ideal place for us to be headquartered because of the activity happening here," said Daniel.

"This country builds more small satellites than anywhere else in the world outside the US. We have companies like Spire and Clyde Space who are building satellites as well as companies like Skyrora and Orbex who are developing vehicles - rockets - to be fuelled by their own green propellent technologies. Then there are the developing spaceports meaning we should see the first successful launch of small satellites into orbit from European soil next year - the missing part of our 'end to end" jigsaw."

The end of the value chain is data and the information coming from these satellites is analysed and used for a range of purposes, such as tracking endangered species, identifying people trafficking or illegal mining, deforestation or wildfires.

As the space sector continues to grow it will need new talent and Daniel said the new guidance pack had been prepared to correct any perception that the sector was solely for engineers and scientists.

"We need more coders and analysts for example if we are going to continue what we have started in Scotland around space," he said.

This article was written by Nan Spowart for the Winter 2023 Edition of The Herald Business HQ Magazine. Click here to read the full edition.