From designing new satellite networks to unifying global space laws, Kristina talks about how the University’s Space Innovation Hub is transforming research ideas into world-protecting products, training the next generation of space specialists, and leading the way to make Edinburgh the space data capital of Europe.
What are the Hub’s research priorities?
I work very closely with Professor Iain Woodhouse, who leads on the space research team development for the University and is focused on understanding what the research priorities are. We’ve put our stake in the ground for six different priority areas for the next five to ten years around space.
The first area is around sustainable space. This is the idea of using Earth observation data and space for good, for climate change mitigation, food security and sustainability – all the things we need to do here on Earth. It is also thinking about the low-Earth orbit, because that’s becoming very polluted with space debris, and to make sure we are good caretakers of our own planet and the surrounding near-Earth environment.
Another big focus area is space data at scale. So, utilising our wonderful supercomputing facility (EPCC), DDI (Data-Driven Innovation) and the City Region Deal, and working closely with our colleagues in the University’s Bayes Centre. Technically we are the space data capital of Europe because we are hosting the supercomputing facility for the UK here in Edinburgh and we are the home to many Earth observation data companies and expertise. We are also processing space data and we have an exceptional artificial intelligence (AI) department.
The third priority is about autonomy in space, so that’s looking at AI and edge computing, and the fourth one is all about life beyond Earth. We’re looking at what the University can achieve relating to NASA’s Artemis programme, as well as focusing on astrobiology and living off-world on Mars or the Moon.
The fifth one is about the social dimensions of space. For example, what are the new habitats going to look like? What are we going to look like as a society? We’re very keen on thinking about the implications of our applications and asking difficult questions about what we are doing, and if we should be doing it in the first place. For example, we want to be the ones to ask whether it’s okay to have more artificial stars than real stars in the skies.
The sixth one is very much about student experience. Here in the UK, there is a very large skills gap in the space sector that needs to be filled and we want to qualify those students to come in and be that exceptional talent, and to help to grow the economy as well.
As a result of that, we are developing a space masters programme, led by Professor Woodhouse. We’re hoping to do a very different kind of programme where we pick and mix different departments across the University to give our students a well-rounded understanding.
We want to attract students that are slightly different as well because I think people often assume space is all about engineering. However, we also need humanitarian students who are going to think about the history, law and the politics of it. We need students who are creative, who are going be able to create a 3D version of Mars. We also need business students who can think about the economics of space, and finance students to think about the ESG (environmental, social and governance) part that space can play.
Tell us about SENSE, the UK Centre for Doctoral Training for Satellite Data in Environmental Science at the University
The thing that makes SENSE different is the fact that it’s very strongly linked to industry. We want to work with industry early on and throughout the whole of the doctoral training programme to make sure that what the students are learning and experiencing are what industry is going to need when they graduate and finish their PhDs.
One of the things that makes it particularly relevant right now is the fact that it’s the training of the next generation who apply satellite data to the environment. On 1 November, there’s going to be a SENSE industry symposium, which is a chance for students to talk about their projects with industry, academia, and anyone else, such as other students. They are doing amazing things, for example, tracking whales from space. I’ve had a large proportion of my industrial colleagues to come to the event before, and they were blown away by all the students’ ideas.
What are some of the University’s latest space research connected to industry?
One good space example recently is a company that spun out from the University called Mercury. It was started by Professor Matt Williams, in the School of GeoSciences.
Mercury is using Earth-observation data to predict crop yield from different areas. It is very impactful because crop yield is going to be more and more of a focus as we go deeper into this climate change catastrophe that we’re facing.
Another academic in the School of GeoSciences, Professor Steve Hancock, has been leading activities around the creation of a global LiDAR (light detection and ranging lasers that see the world in 3D) network, called GLAMIS.
That’s been going for the last couple of years, and I’ve been heavily involved in supporting the development of this mission. The long-term plan is for us to create and launch a 150-kilogramme satellite and create worldwide LiDAR coverage, which is not currently in existence so it’s very exciting. LiDAR data gets used for everything from weather measurements to looking at tree canopy in the tropics. Professor Hancock’s particular interest and expertise is around LiDAR specifically for forests, and he’s very passionate about the project.
Is there a legal side to space activities?
Dr Rachael Craufurd-Smith in the Edinburgh Law School heard about the Space Innovation Hub and got in touch with us. We’ve worked closely together because there is an urgent and developing need for space law. In the next couple of years, the low Earth orbit, which is where most of the satellites are coming into, is going to become uninsurable because there are so many and there is a high risk of clashes and debris creation.
Linked to that is the fact that our legal and regulatory framework around space is exceptionally out of date, or sometimes non-existent. So, the UK has been creating regulations for space launch, given the fact plans for spaceports here are coming together now, but the law around space stewardship that we are operating on is from the 1970s.
It’s not fit for purpose because at the time the only people who had the capacity to launch were big states and they would only launch a couple of times a year maximum, whereas now the sector is very different. We’re calling it new space because basically anyone with the small rocket and satellite can go up there.
His Majesty King Charles III has launched an Astra Carta, a statement about protecting the near-Earth environment and us being good stewards for that. Dr Craufurd-Smith, a couple of other colleagues, industry and I were heavily involved behind the scenes for the Astra Carta and worked closely with the team to make sure they have good information and understand what the potentials and regulations are.
There are so many different standards that exist globally about what space usage should look like that there isn’t one that everyone follows. So, we’ve been working closely with Astra Carta and the Space Sustainability Institute to make sure that we understand the standards and create one useful standard.
If the UK can combine more than 1,000 standards into one that is acceptable and adopted for the whole world it will make the UK the power centre of space sustainability, because we will be the ones who have done the diligent research to create something that protects our long-term access to and use of space. It is extremely powerful and currently isn’t being considered as far as we can see anywhere else on this kind of scale.
You know, we still speak about the moon landing and Kennedy’s speech. This is going to be that conversation in 30 years: “Remember when we created that standard, didn’t the University of Edinburgh do that?” We will be there. We will be part of history for that. I’m confident that we can achieve it with the right incentive and collaboration that we can bring to the table.