Reach for the stars: spotlight on the space sector in Scotland

Following representation from the space sector at our recent Tech & Data Careers Day 2021, a big thank you to Christina MacLeod for this exciting insight into the space sector in Scotland.

Christina is a fourth year mechanical engineering student at the University of Edinburgh and the Chair and Founder of the Edinburgh Women in Space Conference. She also serves as the Sponsorship Manager for Endeavour, the University of Edinburgh’s rocketry team, a Space Careers UK Content Writer, and member of the New Voices of Space team.

Read on to find out how the space sector is accessible for many disciplines…

When you think of the space sector, perhaps you think of NASA, or Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. Or, perhaps you think of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars. Either way, space sounds pretty incredible – and impossibly far away, right?

Actually, the UK space sector is closer than you may think. All 13 regions in the UK are home to the headquarters of a space organisation, where there are 948 space related organisations. Since 2012, this has meant 39 new companies appearing each year. Employment in the area has also increased at a rate of 4.3% per year, and jobs in the sector employ about 42,000 people.

One of the major headlines in the UK revolves around the launching of rockets from Scotland. The UK already has the satellite companies, with a large hub in Glasgow, the ability to process data, and the expertise to oversee it all, so adding rockets closes the gap in the manufacturing chain, and will allow the country direct access to space.

As well, Edinburgh itself is aiming to become the Space Data Capital of Europe by 2030. Space data is a hot topic, especially since it can be used to help with problems on Earth; whether that is through mapping forest areas, monitoring the marine environment for coastal erosion, or assisting farmers with predicting crop yield. These activities have been highlighted on Dr. Murray Collins’ and Kim McAllisters’ “Edinburgh: Space Data Capital” podcast.

The University of Edinburgh has also embraced Scotland’s role in the space sector, creating a new “space and satellites” theme at the university, of which Chancellor’s Fellow Dr. Collins is the Space Lead. Regarding the work done at the University of Edinburgh, the Space and Satellites team have shared that:

“Our researchers work in an extraordinary range of space-related activities: engineers are exploring the management of fire risk in space, and developing rocket fuel pods; chemists are developing clean-burn rocket fuels; and astronomers are tracking the skies for space debris. We even have teams developing deep-space probes, and others writing literature about space. Our GeoScientists are training the next generation scientists within SENSE, the UK’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Earth Observation. Our students are even developing their own satellite missions.”

This all sounds quite technical, and sounds like opportunities only exist for those select few engineers, mathematicians, and physicists. However, the UK space sector is going to need many more individuals from diverse backgrounds to help secure its place in the global space race. Lawyers, policy makers, and business developers are working to create plans to expand the UK space sector. Astronauts also do not reach space alone; a range of medical professionals, astronaut trainers, and psychologists are right there preparing for missions, alongside individuals building critical hardware.

If you think back to the Apollo missions, the world was captivated with the story of humans making it back to the moon. This was largely due to the excellent promotional work going on. If there was nobody there to tell that story, then it’s likely that NASA would not exist. Or at least, not to the same extent as it does today. This demonstrates the importance of having those story-teller roles; journalists, science communicators, television producers, and marketers all have vital roles in the space sector too.

Whether you are interested in building new rockets, or more interested in inspiring young people into STEM, it is possible to enter the space sector. Edinburgh Physics alumna Rachael Dixon, who is a European Space Agency Young Graduate Trainee for School Didactics in Space Technology, shares:

“I think the best thing for getting you into the sector is to follow your interests – look for opportunities not because you think it’s something you should do, but because you have a genuine interest. For me, this involved delivering STEM and coding lessons to young people. Student-led societies such as UKSEDS and Edinburgh Women in Space are also a great way to develop skills and learn about the sector.”

There are numerous opportunities for students to get involved in the space sector. With technical and creative opportunities, Asteria and Endeavour offer the unique opportunity to build either CubeSats or rockets, and compete against other universities in various competitions that can take you as far as the United States! External organisations, such as UKSEDS, and New Voices of Space in Scotland also have opportunities to get involved in outreach, career development, marketing, or competitions.

Of course, internship opportunities are valuable for the space sector. The more experience you have in the space world, the better. Recently, fourth year Edinburgh student Bethany Taylor landed a coveted placement at Edinburgh rocket company, Skyrora, which offers technical placements to students at the beginning of each academic year.

Another internship opportunity is through the SPIN programme, which offers students the chance to get involved in a selection of exciting projects, with SPIN alumna and 2021 Brooke Owens Fellow Sarah Lappin sharing that:

“Gaining experience on a real-world project is incredibly beneficial, not only will you improve your technical skills but you’ll also improve your transferable skills and will have a greater understanding of the industry. During an internship you’ll learn in a much more immersive and fast-paced environment with support of experienced professionals. My SPIN internship introduced me to Earth Observation, a field that I hadn’t really considered beforehand, and it gave skills which are relevant to so many areas within the industry. There’s a great variety of internships available through SPIN, so there’s really something for everyone, no matter where your area of interest lies!”

There are also all sorts of student and graduate positions being advertised on Space Careers UK. Even if you are not able to partake in opportunities, developing your transferable skills, demonstrating your passion for the sector through voluntary roles, and attending conferences to network with individuals from all across the space sector will give you that edge for your future applications – and an extensive network!

The space sector is quickly expanding in the UK, and on an uphill trajectory. In order to create a space nation, we need to ensure that everyone, whether you have been dreaming of being an astronaut since before you could talk, or recently discovered the space sector in the midst of your sports science revision, is welcome in the space sector. After all, space is the ultimate adventure, and we need everyone on board to help the UK reach the stars. Perhaps, a UK trip to the moon will be in the cards soon?

The 33rd annual UKSEDS National Student Space Conference, happening online on the 6th and 7th of March is the premier event for students interested in space, uniting them with academics and professionals from across the country to network, share knowledge, and discuss the challenges facing the sector. Register for a free ticket at UKSEDS

The inaugural Edinburgh Women in Space Conference is happening online from 26th to 28th of March, 2021 on Hopin. It is a celebration of women in the space sector and aims to encourage students and young professionals to find their place in space through hosting engaging sessions, providing networking opportunities, and through building a community of women and gender minorities in space. Register for a free ticket on Hopin.

(Image: Space Careers UK team from the Careers Launch, Birmingham 2020, courtesy of Jacob Smith)

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