From high-tech satellites to the search for life on Mars – Scotland is building a bright future as part of the New Space Age.
And the spinoffs help with everything from protecting the planet from asteroid strikes to creating better artificial snow for the winter sports industry.
A series of guests at the Wigtown Festival Company’s third annual Big Bang Weekend, from 8 to 10 March, will reveal how the country has become a magnet for space researchers and satellite builders.
Among them is Claire Barcham, UK Space Agency’s Director of Commercial Space. She said:“New technology is reducing the cost of access to space and there is an exciting opportunity for Scotland and all of the UK to thrive in the new space age. We have world-leading capabilities in small satellite technology, telecommunications, robotics and Earth observation.
“Our space sector employs 41,900 people and, in Scotland, the industry is punching well above its weight with 18 per cent of those jobs based here as well as some of the best universities in the world for space science.
“One of the most exciting projects of our Spaceflight programme includes £31.5 million in grant funding to support small satellite launch from a new spaceport at Sutherland in Scotland.
“Furthermore, the recentopening of a new rocket design facility in Forres could bring more than 100 new jobs to the region. This landmark moment brings Britain one step closer to its own domestic commercial launch capability and sends a clear signal to the rest of the world that our preparations are advancing at pace.”
Among the international scientists attracted to Scotland because of the quality of its space research and the vibrancy of its industry are Dr Axel Hagermann, from Germany, and Australian Dr Alastair Tait who work at the University of Stirling and are speaking at Big Bang.
Dr Hagermann has been involved with Mars Express, Cassini-Huygens and the Rosetta missionsand previously worked for the Open University in Milton Keynes before coming north.
“I came to Stirling last year and the chance to be part of Scotland’s space industry was certainly a factor. There are a lot of institutions active in space research that are within an hour of each other – it’s geographically coherent.
“There are also young and vibrant businesses in the space sector and Scotland is especially good with small instruments and satellites. That’s great for us because the things we want to get into space are experiments the size of a pen not a van.”
As an Associate Professor in Stirling’s Biological and Environmental Sciences department and is a specialist in ice, doing research with results that are wonderful, weird and frequently important – as frozen water could make all the difference to humanity’s prospects on Mars.
Dr Hagermann is also working with a Japanese team to collect samples from an asteroid. One indirect benefit could be to contribute to our plans for what to do if a large asteroid was on a collision course with Earth.
He said: “The mission is to find out more about the structure of asteroids. But space research sometimes has spin offs and the data collected could help us work out what we can do if we discover a large asteroid is heading towards the Earth.
“We are quite good at tracking them but have little idea of what could be done about one. It is something we need to consider seriously, the Earth and all the other planets are covered with craters that are the scars from meteorite strikes. Moreover, resources on Earth are finite and there are some who suggest asteroids could be exploited for raw materials in the future.”
Past research has already given them the potential to help companies that create artificial snow machines to improve their technology. This would help them create artificial snow that was precisely graded to the needs of particular sports and resorts.
Dr Tait will be at Big Bang to talk about the search for life on Mars – looking back to when it was believed that Martians had built a network of canals across the planet, and ahead to the missions that could finally reveal the existence of alien lifeforms – albeit miscroscopic.
Dr Tait, Commonwealth Rutherford Fellow in Biological and Environmental Sciences at Stirling, said: “The idea of life on Mars has inspired generations of scientists, and writers such as H G Wells. Now a new generation of robotic explorers hopes to find it.”
Mars is not just our closest planet but the most Earthlike and even in the 1950s some thought it may be covered in plantlife, but flyby missions in the 1970s revealed a barren surface.
Dr Tait said the idea life on Mars “suffered a bit of a downer at that point” but that subsequent research has raised hopes again but it may well be beneath the surface where there is ,ore warmth and the chance of liquid water. If the UK-built Rosalind Rover, due to launch in 2020, found life the implications wold be immense.
Dr Tait said: “Right now we only have one data point for life – Earth – so it could be a fluke. Finding that life has evolved independently at two points in the Solar System alone wold give much higher probability of it being elsewhere.”
With little space research taking place in Australia Dr Tait found Scotland was an ideal place for someone with his skills and interests. “It was great to have the chance to come here. Scotland has so much going on, for a small country it punches far above its weight in terms of space research,” he said.
Adrian Turpin, artistic director of Wigtown Festival Company which is organising Big Bang, said: “Scotland, and the rest of the UK, are pushing hard to be among the leaders of the next space age and Big Bang is a chance meet the people who are taking us to new worlds.”
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