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Entering a new orbit – in Belfast

Reflections on the UK Space Conference from a newcomer by Stuart Buchanan

Over the last year, I’ve been learning about the growing space sector in Scotland. I first heard about the UK’s ambitions to develop launch capability, and Scotland, in particular, appears to be leading that charge. Rocket launches are big, loud spectacles, and probably what will most grow the general public’s awareness of the sector. But there’s far more to it than just this part.

There are, most obviously, the things the rockets are actually launching into space: satellites. Glasgow builds more of these than anywhere else in Europe. And then there’s the stuff that those satellites are doing: sending back data. Again, Scotland has an abundance of expertise in this field, too.

My initial curiosity about all this was, admittedly, driven by a romanticised idea of space, as portrayed by popular science shows, films and books – as well as a healthy dose of science fiction! The reality is no less impressive, but it is indeed, a reality – and a day job – for the 8,500 people in Scotland who work in the space sector. And in November, I got a chance to meet some of them, at the UK Space Conference in Belfast. 

It was good to see that this is a sector that is already thriving. There are hundreds of players in this field, and new ones entering all the time, dealing with the everyday business of operating in space. Sure, there is still an aspirational, starry-eyed wonder to some elements of the work. But there are also practical, un-glamourous and sometimes mundane problems that are being tackled too, by commercial operators competing for business just like any other industry.

There are businesses making better antennas for satellites to communicate with their ground stations. Others are trying to find a way to allow satellites to refuel in orbit. Some are even building habitats for human missions to the Moon. While this is all quite space-focused so far, I realised how reliant almost all elements of our modern society are on space technology. Everything from agriculture to healthcare relies on data that we get from space. The phone in your pocket connects you, on demand, to a global positioning system of satellites orbiting Earth, every time you open your map app, for example. Soon, we might need to ask ourselves what industries aren’t reliant on space technology.

I attended as many talks as I could, and there was lots of discussion about skills. There is  a shortage of skills in the sector, and it must compete with other, sometimes better paid-sectors when it comes to hiring new talent. We need more scientists, engineers, software developers, electronics experts and such. I did appreciate that this was spoken about quite candidly, and acknowledged – but more action will be needed to address this going forward. 

There was also discussion about the role of ethics in the sector, and how to make sustainability more than just a nice marketing buzzword. Real efforts have been made here, and it's encouraging that neither of these important elements are mere afterthoughts as the sector grows.

I am a newcomer to the sector, and really still trying to get my head around it. I owe a great deal to AstroAgency for hosting their monthly online networking event, SpaceBar – through that, I've gotten to hear from interesting speakers, and meet people working on amazing things. They were also present at the conference, hosting a rare, in-person SpaceBar, and as usual this provided an opportunity to network, to learn, and to come away inspired.

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to chat to me – especially those who had to explain things in layman's terms, very slowly! – and for contributing to the large heap of flyers, business cards and pamphlets that I left Belfast with. On first impression, you are certainly all a very friendly and welcoming bunch.

Stuart Buchanan

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