Malcolm Macdonald

Malcolm Macdonald

The appliance of science

The Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications acts as a bridge between entrepreneurs and academics, as Malcolm Macdonald tells Kristy Dorsey.

Back in October 2015, a rocket from the Hebrides missile range in the Western Isles became the first vehicle to lift off from the UK and leave the Earth’s atmosphere. It was, as Malcolm Macdonald has described it, the “least-heralded event” of the year, taking off as it did as part of an international military exercise in the Atlantic. The Terrier-Orion two-stage rocket was playing the part of a ballistic missile and, as chance would have it, it took off from the vicinity of Macdonald’s historic family croft.

As the head of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA), Macdonald hopes to help usher in an era where vehicles are regularly launched into space from UK – and more specifically Scottish – soil. According to a report published last year by London Economics and Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish space industry’s main strengths are in manufacturing, which is the assembly of craft, subsystems and components such as those produced in Glasgow by Clyde Space. At the other end of the value chain there is burgeoning activity in space applications, which include companies such as Astrosat and Ecometrica that use space data to offer value-added services to end-users.

In between is the actual operation of equipment going into space. UK firms have traditionally had to rely on the launch capabilities of other countries, which brings with it extra costs and logistical difficulties. For example, the launch of Clyde Space’s UKube-1 – the first satellite ever fully assembled in Scotland – out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was delayed for various reasons by nearly 12 months.

Only 11 countries currently have launch capability but, like others in the sector, Macdonald says plans to establish the UK’s first spaceport before 2020 will be a massive boost for the sector. “There is that bit in the middle that we are not able to do and have no control over, and we are dependent on other people for that,” he explains. “The spaceport programme will close that middle bit, bringing a lot of added value and cutting down on delays and costs.”

A site anywhere in the UK will bring benefits for firms north of the Border, but the odds on the first spaceport opening in Scotland appeared to narrow in December after Glasgow Prestwick Airport signed an agreement with Houston Spaceport to share best practice on commercial launch activities for space ports. It was seen as a major boost for the South Ayrshire airport, as its US partner already has a licence to operate horizontal space launches from its site at Ellington Airport in Texas.

“It shows how far work has progressed at Prestwick, and the maturity of the concept,” Macdonald says. “It also validates the value of what Prestwick is doing. There is value going both ways – it is not just Prestwick getting something out of this, because Houston also sees advantages as well.”

As important as that link is, Macdonald’s remit at SoXSA is far more wide-ranging. Set up in 2014, the Scottish hub at the University of Strathclyde is one of five centres of excellence that are delivery partners for the Satellite Applications Catapult, the others being in Durham, Leicester, Portsmouth and the Goonhily Earth Station in Helston.

Its aim is to look ‘end-to-end’ into developing new concepts for the exploitation of space and the betterment of life. Opportunities span sectors such as energy, sustainable cities, smart grid, agriculture, marine, life sciences and transport. Towards that end, SoXSA is hosting the inaugural Data.Space conference in Glasgow on 1 and 2 February, with government speakers and representatives from organisations such as the European Marine Safety Agency and the UK Space Agency. Chief executives and founders from firms such as Spire and Descartes Labs will also be on hand, along with a host of smaller businesses.

Macdonald explains that the idea is to pull together data and service providers with users to identify opportunities that exist today. This includes areas where existing data can be used in new ways, or by going back through the chain to discover how new technologies, platforms and payloads can generate fresh data with a commercial punch.

As the author of The International Handbook of Space Technology, Macdonald literally wrote the book on the sector. However, his professional aspirations were not always aimed beyond the atmosphere.

Raised in Glasgow, he did his undergraduate and doctoral work in aerospace engineering at the University of Glasgow where he then spent two years on a research contract. His main interest was in traditional aircraft, though this would eventually lead to loftier ambitions. “There was no grand plan to have a career in the space sector,” Macdonald says. “I’ve probably always been interested in space to the degree that most people are, but never in a really geeky way.

“What I was interested in was engineering. After that it was just a matter of following the opportunities that were in front of me.”

TICHe took the chance to join information technology (IT) services provider SciSys in 2005, where he became part of the company’s space division based out of Bristol. During his three years there, he worked on the control software for both the ADM-Aeolus and LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, plus a number of other research and development studies.

Getting out of academia allowed him to discover the traditional way that spacecraft are built in large-scale programmes. “It was a good chance to use what I had been studying for nine years at university in a hands-on, commercial environment,” he says. “It was quite a change to get out and build stuff that was actually going to fly.”

He returned to Scotland in 2008 as a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde and from there progressed into his current role at SoXSA, which provides a link between the university and local businesses.

The space sector in Scotland employs about 7,000 people and had an estimated turnover of £131 million in 2014-15, according to last year’s study from London Economics and Scottish Enterprise. That represents 1.1% of the total UK space economy, a figure that is expected to grow as increasing commercialisation drives a ‘New Space Age’ of applications.

Macdonald cites the example of the oil and gas sector, where very small movements of structures such as pipelines can be detected by satellite before they become a major problem. Doing this via spacecraft gives a wide and rapidly repeating view.
“You can get global coverage in a few days, and there is no other way to do that except from space,” he says.

Funded in part by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the UK Space Agency, SoXSA’s budget is also supplemented by grants and contracts undertaken by the centre. One recent example was the award of roughly £98,000 of European Union funding as part of the two-year ‘Technology for Self-Removal of Spacecraft’ (TeSeR) programme being led by Airbus Defence and Space. According to NASA, more than 500,000 pieces of space debris made up of everything from non-functional craft to abandoned launch vehicle stages are currently orbiting Earth at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour. TeSeR is looking into the development of a cost-efficient but reliable removal module to clean up this space junk.

Parts of large spacecraft can survive re-entry and need more careful handling than smaller satellites that burn up upon entering the atmosphere. TeSeR is working to develop at least one but perhaps as many as three prototypes with the emphasis on removing smaller spacecraft of less than 500kg that operate in low-Earth orbit. Being part of the network of hubs set up by the Satellite Applications Catapult allows SoXSA to offer a range of support to Scottish-based businesses that would not otherwise be possible.

“We each have our complementary skills as well as our own geographic area to look after,” Macdonald explains. “For example, the East Midlands has a very strong history in navigation.” Scotland boasts the upper hand in small satellites, which has led to the University of Strathclyde heading up a project to bring space technology opportunities to emerging nations. The programme offers researchers, entrepreneurs and established companies the prospect of gaining scientific insight or securing a new space market over shorts periods – a few months or years – without the extensive investment required for a traditional space mission. It will build on lessons learned from UKube-1, which was developed by Clyde Space with support from Strathclyde.

Malcolm MacdonaldThe collaboration will establish a missions’ laboratory in Mexico in partnership with the Universidad Autonomia de Chihuahua and government development agency MXSpace. Known as NANOBED, its formation will benefit from experiences of Clyde Space, the CubeSat specialist widely regarded as the founding father of Scotland’s emerging space cluster.

“What we have got in Scotland is certainly a different kind of space sector when compared to the rest of the UK, where there is a much more traditional kind of space industry,” Macdonald says.

Smaller, lower-cost satellites are leading to the ‘democratisation’ of space, he argues, which used to be dominated by superpowers wielding vast budgets and large populations. And just as social media has turned the internet into a two-directional highway of information, in the future there will be much more interaction with these space assets.

“It is not just about having the technology, but what you can do with the technology,” Macdonald adds.

To spread these benefits as widely as possible, SoXSA and the Satellite Applications Catapult have teamed up with Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) as part of a two-year programme to help businesses in the North of Scotland to capitalise on the satellite technology sector. Announcing the partnership in June, HIE business development director Charlotte Wright said firms in sectors such as healthcare and marine renewables will increasingly seek to “make more of space”.

“Exploring the opportunities presented by space satellite technology is the next natural step for many companies,” she said. “This could be to boost their existing trade through improved market reach or indeed by developing products and services for the growing space satellite industry itself.”

But just as the possibility of becoming home to the UK’s first spaceport presents huge opportunities, Scotland’s space sector also faces certain threats. As in most other industries, one of the biggest unknowns is the potential fall-out from the UK’s decision to split away from Europe.

Although Brexit will have no direct impact on the UK’s relationship with the European Space Agency, there are concerns that Scottish companies and researchers could face disadvantages when competing for funding through programmes such as Horizon 2020, the EU research programme with £67 billion to spend over its seven-year lifespan.

How that might play out remains to be seen, though it is worth noting that, since the vote, researchers from the University of Strathclyde were named the overall winners in the latest European Satellite Navigation Competition (ESNC), Europe’s biggest space technology innovation competition. Their system for the low-cost early detection of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was selected from more than 500 entries from 17 countries.

The free movement of the top talent on which the industry relies is another worry.

“That is something the space sector has taken for granted,” Macdonald says. “If serious restrictions were to come into place, that would be a real challenge for the industry.”

On many of those questions, the only answer is to wait and see. But despite the uncertainties, Macdonald emphasises that Scotland’s space sector remains vibrant, and will be well-placed for the future whatever the eventual outcome of Brexit negotiations.

“When you ask who can benefit from the data we are able to gather from outer space, the answer is almost everybody and anybody,”  he says. “The commercial opportunities are vast, and as costs come down that will enable more innovation and more growth. With our foundations in lower-cost, smaller satellites, Scotland is in the seat to drive forward the new space movement.”