Glasgow has become the unlikely capital of Britain’s satellite-building industry.
The former shipbuilding hub has re-invented itself for the space age. It now makes more satellites than any other city outside the United States.
Scotland’s first satellite, built by Clyde Space, was launched just four years ago. Since then Alba Orbital and Spire Global have joined the space race, between them putting around 100 satellites in orbit.
Spire makes one satellite a week in its dust-free ‘clean room’ in a city-centre business centre, but it has ambitions for trebling production.
Sky News was given rare access to film inside the facility, watching as nano-satellites the size of a loaf of bread were assembled from miniaturised components.
Traditionally satellites have been as large as a bus, taken 10-15 years to design and build, and have a working life in orbit of a decade or so.
But nano-sats can be built in days or weeks at a fraction of the cost of their older cousins, and have a lifespan of just two years before they drop out of their very low Earth orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.
Joel Spark, the company’s co-chief technology officer, said it allows the hardware to be regularly updated with newer models.
“The whole point is to launch and replace,” he said.
“We change our phones every two years. Why would you want a space craft that old?”
Nano-sats cost a few thousand pounds – a fraction of their larger cousins. And because they are so tiny, launch costs are also far smaller, making it viable to have constellations of the devices covering a much greater area of the planet’s surface than previously possible.
Spire already has 78 nano-sats in orbit, monitoring radio signals from ships and, later this year, aircraft.
The signals allow the company to track 75,000 individual vessels a day, making it possible to spot illegal fishing, watch out for piracy and trade on commodities before a cargo ship has even reached port.
Peter Platzer, Spire’s chief executive, said world trade is now worth $12.5 trillion a year, with 90% of goods being transported by sea.
“We can see the location, speed, heading, cargo details – a host of information to understand what’s happening on the oceans,” he said.
Similar tracking technology is being rolled out on aircraft, so they can be monitored when they are beyond land-based radar. It would have helped to narrow the search for flight MH370, the Malaysian Airlines plane that has never been found.
“We would have known within minutes that the aircraft was off track,” said Mr Platzer.
“It would have allowed other people to intervene and figure out the plane was in trouble.”
Nano-sats are likely to be used for high-speed interaction between driverless cars, mobile coverage in the remotest of regions and a host of Earth monitoring applications.
Worldwide more than 2,000 small satellites are expected to be launched by 2025.
The Government will later this year announce the location of Britain’s own space port, which will be used to launch satellites and provide a base for space tourism.
Science minister Sam Gyimah said Britain’s space industry is a quiet success story.
“Most people know what Elon Musk is doing in the US, but in the UK we’ve got some great companies solving real world problems in a way that’s really valuable – £250bn is the total value to our economy, in terms of jobs and growth.
“It’s not something to be ignored.”