THE chief executive of a top Scottish aerospace company has said that Scotland is already Europe's leading space nation.

Martin Coates, the CEO of Forres-based orbital launch service company Orbex, also told the Sunday National that the nation’s space sector can develop an even bigger lead with the right support.

Scotland already punches way above its weight in the space sector, home to a fifth (or 8440) of the UK’s space-related jobs and more than 130 space-related companies.

READ MORE: Protesters call on Scottish Government to withdraw spaceport support

The West of Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, already builds more satellites than any other place in Europe – and is only second to California worldwide. Edinburgh's reputation as a capital for space data is also on the rise.

This sheer potential led to the Scottish Government announcing in October 2021 a strategy to mobilise Scotland’s space community and become Europe’s leading space nation.

“In some ways, we already are with the satellite manufacturing that’s already going on. So, it’s not declaring that we want to be in leadership of a sector in which we’re already in the lead,” Coates said.

The National:

He added: “Can Scotland develop a bigger lead? Yes. And that’s where us and other industry players come into it.”

Orbex is one of three main aerospace companies trying to establish Scotland as a satellite launch capital, with a focus on micro-satellites – which weigh between 11-200kg.

The other two are the Saxa Vord spaceport in Unst, Shetland; and a spaceport in North Uist being proposed by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in conjunction with private military contractor QinetiQ.

Scotland is blessed with its geography, which is a key factor with satellite launches. Its position in the northern half of the northern hemisphere means it is well placed to launch satellites into Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). With shorter trajectories, satellites will reach their destination quicker and reduce risk.

Coates says there are lots of things to be optimistic about when it comes to establishing Scotland as a launch capital, but there are still challenges for companies like Orbex that need to be addressed.

The National: The planned location of the UK's first spaceport in Sutherland on Scotland's north coast

“In the long-term, there are challenges that face any part of the world that wants to do high-end, high-performance engineering – which is finding people that have certain skill sets,” Coates said.

“Promoting and making Scotland a really attractive place to move to is important. And expanding the A9 so it’s a better road to use for the basics of logistics. All these things add up.”

A report published by the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee in July criticised the “disjointed approach” to Britain’s space policy which, they said, is hampering launch potential.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit’s rocket, which blasted off from Cornwall on January 9, did not reach orbit and its payload of small satellites was lost.

Virgin Orbit – which has since declared bankruptcy – and some of its satellite customers were critical of the UK regulatory process, which was led by the Civil Aviation Authority.

While the committee concluded there was no evidence that the regulatory system contributed to the failure of the Virgin Orbit launch, the report did state that there is “insufficient co-ordination between the large number of regulatory bodies involved in licensing launches, and this continues to place unnecessary burdens of complexity and administration on companies”.

Coates conceded that the number of regulations can be “irritating”. For example, Orbex has to have an explosives certificate because of the materials it uses while also being health and safety compliant.

He explained: “They kind of go hand in hand, streamlining would be great.

“If we’re going to develop Scotland’s space sector, we need to make it as straightforward as possible for organisations. There’s no point in putting bits of irritating restrictions.

“But I know we have to balance this with local people’s genuine concerns and issues.”

The National: Protesters say spaceports could cause environmental harm in Scotland

Protesters from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Drone Wars UK (above) appeared outside Holyrood on Tuesday calling on the Scottish Government to withdraw support for new spaceports in Scotland – of which there are currently plans for five.

The groups also expressed concerns with the three existing ones, including the Orbex spaceport on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland.

Lynn Jamieson, the chair of the Scottish CND, said the projects posed a threat to biodiversity.

Coates disagrees. He said: “I’d challenge the extremity of that statement in terms of the practical reality of what these operations actually are.

“The site is less than two hectares. There is a lot of care and attention to restoring the peat, putting in the right drainage and making sure we can collect any fuel spills.

“We use bio-propane. It sits in a tank about the same size as one you'd see outside a hotel. We’re not dealing with vast quantities of lethal stuff.

“When it comes to the launch vehicle, it’s a fully recoverable and reusable vehicle. If it is damaged beyond reuse then the carbon fibre can be dissolved and reused.

“We really do consciously aim to have the minimum environmental impact.”

The groups also expressed concerns with the role of spaceports in militarisation.

Last year, the UK Government published its Defence Space Strategy and described space as the fifth operational domain of the military alongside cyber, maritime, air and land.

Responding to these concerns, Coates said: “It’s a bit early for us to be concerning ourselves.

“I’d make the broad observation that the sorts of size of satellites we’d be able to carry don't generally have any military capability. It’s not really where we are in the ecosystem.”