Caledonia dreaming: Think Scotland, think space | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.03.2018
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Caledonia dreaming: Think Scotland, think space

Brexit is not all the UK's handling right now. It's passed a new law to help it become the first European country with its own spaceports. DW visited one of the potential sites on a stormy Scottish afternoon.

If Scotland fails to evoke images of sun, sea and sand for you — like Florida or French Guiana — you're in with the majority. Even the locals admit it rains a lot in Scotland. And that's unlikely to change.

But perhaps Scotland doesn't need a lot of sun for what it's planning — although it is clearly reaching for the sun. There are moves, you see, to turn Scotland into a hub for the UK space industry, where satellite manufacturers, launchers and passenger spaceflight operators can all convene. If they get their rockets on, they may make it by the year 2020. And Europe will then have its very own bonnie Cape Canaveral.

"We'd be the first in Europe. And that would give us an opportunity to become synonymous with space. Much like Aberdeen is synonymous with oil and gas, you would think of space and think of Prestwick," said Richard Jenner, spaceport director at Glasgow Prestwick Airport, on a rainy, blustery day at the end of January. "But you picked an awful day to be here!"

To say it would be Europe's first spaceport isn't strictly true. Europe has a spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana — a colonial outpost governed by France on the North Atlantic coast of South America.

Read more: How horizontal launchers could propel satellites and spaceflight from UK spaceports

It's a lovely place, but a fair trek for all those fragile satellites that are so often built in Europe proper — in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and now increasingly in Scotland. Satellites have to be transferred to their launch sites with the upmost care — they are very delicate instruments — so the shorter the distance, the better.

A head start

"It's a lot about convenience. Not having to go to [the Baikonur Cosmodrome in] Kazakhstan or French Guiana, and to be able to come to good old Prestwick for the right type of launch, gives us a head start," said Jenner.

Prestwick-Raumhafen (DW/Z. Abbany)

Prestwick on a rainy day: It's a fairly standard-looking airport but one that may change the UK's future

That would be a head start in what's often referred to as New Space — a new commercial era in space that's projected to have a global value of €457 billion ($564 billion) by 2030. And Prestwick's efforts have been noted overseas.

In 2016, Glasgow Prestwick Airport signed a memorandum of understanding with Houston Spaceport in the US to exchange information and "know-how."

"It creates the interaction that's necessary now that space is a commercial matter," said Arturo Machuca, Houston Spaceport general manager, when we spoke to him at the 2018 DATA.SPACE Conference in Glasgow.

But is there anything special about Scotland, given that so much in space starts in America?

"Yes, without a question. Scotland is becoming a mecca for the development of satellites," said Machuca before looking farther into the future. "As commercial space flight becomes a regular happening, we will also need a network of spaceports around the world. And in the future we will see the need to have those connections between Prestwick and Houston."

Bringing it all together

Glasgow Prestwick Airport is only one of four Scottish spaceport options. There's Campbeltown and Stornoway airports, and RAF Leuchars. The Scottish government is also looking at a site in the Outer Hebrides. And then there's a handful of options in England and Wales.

Prestwick-Raumhafen (DW/Z. Abbany)

History in the air: The Prestwick Pioneer was built here. It was the first plane to fly over Everest

"There are only two viable ones outside of Scotland," says Jenner. "One is Newquay in Cornwall and the other is Llanbedr in Wales, but Llanbedr has its own issues down there. We've got a lot of aerospace and space industry — the cluster we've got here is the biggest in Scotland and the third-biggest in the UK."

It's not just through academia, with universities like Strathclyde, Edinburgh and Herriot-Watt making their mark. It's also coming together through local satellite companies, like Clyde Space, Alba Orbital and Spire — an American company which has made a second home in Glasgow.

"We've got everything we need in Scotland, except somewhere to launch," said Jenner. 

To begin with, a spaceport at Prestwick would focus on horizontal launches for small satellites on orbital and sub-orbital missions. Vertical, rocket launches are too dangerous for Prestwick, given the local population density. Prestwick couldn't afford to have fuel stages of a rocket landing in a residential street. 

Before and after Brexit

As an industrial strategy, involving a lot of science and engineering, it's easy to see how developing UK spaceports might be a priority, especially with the UK leaving the European Union. It would add a layer of uniqueness, and increase the UK's economic prospects. It stands to reason then that the Scottish and UK governments have publicly backed the idea.

But after the initial excitement in about March 2015, when a shortlist of potential sites was published by the UK government, things went a little quiet. The reality of Brexit was starting to hit home ... and all the issues that have come with it.

Brexit is, of course, a going concern. But there's been some movement on the spaceport front since then.

Prestwick-Raumhafen Richard Jenner und Andrew Barclay (DW/Z. Abbany)

Andrew Barclay (left) and Richard Jenner (right) at Prestwick's air traffic control tower — it was freshly painted that day

The UK's Space Industry Act became law earlier this month (15.3.2018). It's a "significant stage in the process," as Jenner put it in a press release, as it allows commercial UK space launches and means places like Prestwick can apply for a spaceport license.

Up and down the runway

Prestwick has a varied set of talents. It's an international airport that services commercial flights as well as military activities, and the odd rock star.

While driving around from apron to apron, Andrew Barclay, Prestwick's airside safety manager, pointed out an American KC35 fuel tanker that fuels aircraft in the air. "We get quite a lot of military traffic," said Barclay.

We're not allowed to show you the KC35, but I did get a shot of a black and gold light aircraft apparently owned by someone in the rock band AC/DC. It's just been parked out there in the rain for years. Perhaps they've got so many they've forgotten it exists.

Or perhaps they think they own the airport — remember AC/DC's original singer, Bon Scott, in "Aint No Fun (Waiting 'Round to be a Millionaire)"? "Hallo Howard. Friend. Next door neighbor. Oh, yeah, get yer f**ken jet out of my airport!"

I digress.

The military aspect is interesting. For one, Prestwick has recently come in for some criticism from Scottish opposition politicians, who question whether the country's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has mislead the Scottish parliament over Prestwick airport's alleged ties to US President Donald Trump's administration. In particular, an investigation by The Guardian newspaper in February says the US uses Prestwick to launch "frontline operations." There's also something about a golf course Trump owns nearby, but I won't get into that. 

Prestwick-Raumhafen (DW/Z. Abbany)

Plane-park for the rich and famous: The rock band AC/DC owns this plane, but they haven't been back to fly it for years

On our tour of the airport in January, Richard Jenner said Prestwick had had a long relationship with the UK's Ministry of Defense, and that it was also a forward operating base for NATO. "We usually have two exercises a year — Joint Warrior — which is all the military services coming together," he said. "It's good for business."

And it's also good for security and safety, because when you're launching spacecraft, a lot can go wrong.

"We're used to dealing with explosives and have response available in the event of a problem. So it's about security, as you say. If we get Americans over here to do space operations, they know the airfield, there's a long history with that."

A history of making history

The airport has seen a decline in passenger numbers since 2007, when it saw 55,000 "movements" and 2.3 million passengers per year, to current movements of about 700,000 passengers. In the bad years, some of the spaces on site were rented out to whoever needed space, so some of it is not entirely space-related. But if it gets spaceport status, Prestwick hopes it can carve out a new future for the airport and the local community — which would be true of every spaceport bid — but Jenner says the airport has a long history with the area.

Read more: UK stakes its claim on the global space market with draft spaceflight legislation

"Prestwick has been here so long and it's got so many connections with the community going back to the founders, David MacIntyre, who was the first person along with the Duke of Hamilton to fly over Everest in an aircraft that was actually made here, the Prestwick Pioneer," said Jenner. "So there's such a long history and a close connection with the local community and they're just desperate to see it continue going — the airport provides employment, it's connected with the war and what have you, and hopefully a spaceport can help the airport continue for the foreseeable future and develop even more."

Prestwick-Raumhafen (DW/Z. Abbany)

Runway to a new Scottish future in space?

Good to go

Our final stop was air traffic control. Upstairs we found a small team, going about the day's business, coordinating and controlling the airspace overhead. It didn't look much like a space launch center, but they say they're good to go.

"We're equipped to deal with it now," said Robert Kennedy, the watch manager. "From an air traffic control point of view, we would deal with [a space launch] like any other aircraft. It's the en route stuff, the higher levels that need to change procedures."

Procedures, plus a bit of technology as UK airspace moves away radio beacons for navigation towards a GPS system.

"Airplanes will navigate from point-of-departure to their destination. So instead of navigating, for example, from A to F via B, C, D, and E, they will route direct from A to F," said air traffic controller Andy Brook. "That will free up airfield and airspace capacity, which should put us on a good footing for the future."

And when will that future be? Not before the end of 2020 at the earliest. But they've got to be excited.

"Of course, we're excited," said Kennedy. "It's great for the airport, it's great for the community."

"Bring it on," said Brook. Bring it on, indeed.

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