Mass Vasile

Space Research in a Scottish Context

For most of us Massimiliano’s talk on Scottish Space Research was a real revelation.  Scotland may be struggling to build two ferries but elsewhere great strides are being made in space engineering, astronomy and astrophysics and geoscience.

We learned that Scotland has a complete ‘eco-system’ for space research.  It has the necessary manufacturing, launching and satellite operational capabilities.  Surprisingly Glasgow is the biggest manufacturer of satellites outside Houston in the US!  Space based activity is definitely growing.  This means that the number of satellites and debris circling around earth is proliferating.  A real challenge, therefore, how best to dispose of or recycle satellites at the end of their life as they continue to crowd our near space?

Increased private access to space, previously confined mainly to the military and government agencies, is proving to be a game changer as more players enter the field.  We also learn that lessons learned from space technology is providing the means for establishing a network of electric drones in the Highlands & Islands which will improve the delivery of essential medical supplies to remote parts.  A good illustration that man’s ventures into space have benefits closer to home, not just the non-stick frying pan!

There are already over 130 space research based companies in Scotland, some of them Scottish.  It is estimated that by 2030 revenue in Scottish space research will reach £4 billion per annum.  Already six of our Universities have established space capabilities.  These are Strathclyde, Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, St Andrew’s and Herriot Watt.  Massimiliano tells us they already have a good international profile.  Each has its own specialties and strengths.  For space engineering, there’s a good balance between Strathclyde and Glasgow in the West and Herriot Watt and Dundee in the East.  In Astronomy and Astrophysics, it is the older universities that predominate; namely St Andrew’s, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Lastly, it is Edinburgh which has great strength in Geoscience making great use of the vast amounts of information that is downloaded from the satellites circling the earth.

As more and more attention is given to space exploration, it creates big challenges.  There are sustainability issues as mentioned in the growing number of defunct satellites and debris.  This includes coping with the space environment such solar winds, sun flares and gravitational waves.  These raise eco-design issues in terms of how best to design satellites to deal with the end of life for disposal and/ or recycling.  This is not to mention the clever mathematics involved in navigation for exploration missions in the solar system, crafting orbits and the means to bring hardware back to earth.  These design issues also result in the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve the design and operation of satellites and robotics.  Space is a hostile environment and the more that can be done by robots and automatic systems the cheaper and safer space exploration and research is.  Such design work is made more challenging by the fact that the hardware has to be able to work in a range of gravity conditions from micro-g gravity to the large g-forces created as spacecraft are launched from the earth.  All these technical challenges are being addressed across our universities while also seeking a better understanding of the space environment.

During the Q&A session, Massimiliano was asked about the ability to deal with asteroids and space objects threatening to collide with earth. He indicated we have some ability to ‘track and trace’ asteroids and space objects but there is still some uncertainty.  However, potential methods of protecting the earth are already well understood.  Nonetheless there is still some way to go before we can be confident that it is a ‘solved problem’.  Concern was expressed about the prospect of beaming ‘green’ energy down to earth from space and accidently ‘frying’ people, animals and property.  Massimiliano advised that the microwave energy beam involved wasn’t sufficiently concentrated to do damage, a great comfort to everyone, I’m sure.  Of course, one of the members (no doubt planning to place a booking with Jeff Bezos al a William Shatner) asked if space tourism is a threat or opportunity?  Massimiliano had to sit on the fence on this question, answering ‘It depends……’

It’s not possible to cover all that Massimiliano shared with all of us in this short blog.  For this author orbital mechanics, unknowable uncertainty factors and trajectory design are well beyond his schoolboy maths.  This is also true for the sophisticated engineering involved in rocket design, satellite design and their operation.  However, Massimiliano gave great comfort in letting us know that our Universities in Scotland are fully engaged in this research and educating the next generation of engineers and scientists.  In addition, in Scotland there are well established pioneering companies who are fully engaged in designing and making hardware from rockets to satellites.  In addition, planning and constructing launch sites and bases for operating the hardware once in space is actively in hand.  And, while most of us didn’t know it, Scotland is already a recognised international player in Space Research!  Many thanks, Massimiliano, for this quantum leap in our knowledge of space research in Scotland.

Mass Vasile