New technology transforming space engineering

Publication Date

Professor Colin McInnes FRSE took part in a programme of space themed school talks to schools located in Shetland.

A man wearing a suit and tie
Professor Colin McInnes FRSE, James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Space technology is a success partly due to the seamless way in which it is integrated into our lives. The blue dot on a car Sat Nav display relies on a constellation of navigation satellites in orbit high above the Earth. These satellites, and the rockets to launch them, were designed and manufactured by large teams of engineers.

The space sector delivers essential services to society, from telecommunications to climate monitoring, and satellite navigation. As a growing sector it also offers exciting opportunities for the future, and Scotland is at the forefront of these opportunities.

It’s a little known that Scotland manufacturers more satellites than any other European county. This is principally through the work of companies developing micro-satellites. Moreover, as the demand for micro-satellites grows, there is a need for launch sites for rockets to deliver them to orbit.

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Solar power, at night: These ultra-lightweight mirrors in Earth’s orbit could, in principle, reflect sunlight onto solar power farms at dawn and dusk

While space technology delivers a broad range of essential services, my research group are developing a range of new technologies to enable space to be used in entirely new ways. For example, we are developing technologies for swarms of so-called femto-satellites, weighing only a few tens of grams.

We are also developing technologies to fabricate ultra-large structures in space. These could even be used to build lightweight mirrors in Earth orbit to reflect sunlight onto large solar power farms at dawn and dusk, when their output is low but demand for energy can be high.

Looking even further ahead we are investigating strategies to return material from small near Earth asteroids; for example water which can be converted into rocket propellant for in-orbit filling stations.

The space sector provides technologies which underpin our society, both now and in the future. Importantly, it also provides an exciting range of career opportunities. Scotland is at the forefront of these opportunities, from designing to building and ultimately launching satellites.

Professor Colin McInnes FRSE, James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

This article originally appeared in The Shetland Times.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.