A solid base for future launches

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16 March 2018


They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, with the second best time being now.

The wisdom of this statement always struck me as being simple and profound at the same time. But then again, I suppose all true wisdom is.

Thus, I read the announcement (featured in our news section) of the Government’s Space Strategy for Enterprise with great excitement. It sounded like the kind of forward planning that will yield results in years to come, ensuring that Ireland has a part to play in a frontier that is being opened up with increasing acceleration and democratisation.

We need only look at the recent furore around the Falcon Heavy launch by the mercurial Elon Musk and his Space X company to see that there is no longer a reliance on governments to drive innovation and development in this area.

“Nano-satellites are, as the name suggests, small, focused, often single-purpose devices that can be launched, sometimes 10 or 20 at a time, to do a specific job. They can be show-box sized and weigh anything from 1 to 50kg a piece”

When testing a heavy launch vehicle, Musk decided that instead of the usual concrete or steel slug to represent a payload on a vehicle, that, let us face it, could have detonated in a spectacular explosion. Instead, he used the opportunity and put a Tesla Motors Roadster — his Roadster — in there and sent it on its merry way, complete with stereo playing a Bowie song and a representative Starman with live video feed. Not only was a private company, yet again, paving the way for space developments, it was doing so with a complete disregard for previous practice, with an eye to self-promotion.

While still a little under the legendary Saturn V in terms of outright power and lift, the Falcon Heavy system still performed impressively and has now the capability to deliver into orbit payloads that have not been seen in the US since the early 70s.

Space strategy
Now, the likelihood is that Ireland will never have need of such a thing, but looking at the other major development in space technologies recently, reveals where Ireland is far more likely to have an impact (excuse the pun), with its Space Strategy for Enterprise in the (very near) future: nano-satellites.

Nano-satellites are, as the name suggests, small, focused, often single-purpose devices that can be launched, sometimes 10 or 20 at a time, to do a specific job. They can be show-box sized and weigh anything from 1 to 50kg a piece.

They can be developed, given the experience and knowledge now extant of how materials fair in space, for a relatively small cost, built for even less and launched for not very much.

Hundreds of thousands of euros can be the start point, with a launch starting currently from around the €5 million mark. One Indian company, Belatrix Aerospace, is developing a system called Chetak that will deliver 150kg to a 700km synchronous orbit, repeatable every 30 days for €2 million a shot. The system is aimed very much at the micro and nano-satellite market.

In September of last year, the first voice call, from a regular smart phone to a nano-satellite was completed by a UK company called Sky and Space Global.

However, communications is just one application of nano-satellites. They also offer huge potential in things such as climate, ocean and forest monitoring. Atmospheric testing, navigation and positioning, and much more have been proposed too, but, as with all such developments, it is only when it is brought within the easy reach of many that true innovation will spread and use cases currently undreampt of will emerge.

Irish space industry
Despite my persistent dreams as a child, having spent many the night trying (eventually successfully) to spot Halley’s Comet, and once seeing the space shuttle hurtle across the sky, there are unlikely to be a corps of Irish astronauts, but rather there will be an even stronger cadre of Irish companies developing technology for space. But there is already a growing cadre of Irish companies doing important space-related work.

According to the strategy announcement, some 60 Irish companies already fulfil contracts for the European Space Agency (ESA), with the 2,000-odd people directly employed in the sector in 2014 expected to more than double by 2010.

Indeed, the announcement was made at the headquarters of InnaLabs in Blanchardstown, a technology company that has secured a contract with the ESA to develop a highly reliable, radiation-hardened, 3-axis gyroscope for use in commercial space activities including Earth observation, communications and navigation satellites.

This is not happening in isolation either, or should not at least, and needs support from the other burgeoning area of technology democratisation, high performance computing (HPC).

Super computing
Space is a very tricky place to do anything, not least because it is tough to get anything, keep and operate it there. So modelling, testing and simulation is key. This often requires a fairly hefty computational capability, and so some form of supercomputer.

Ireland has both the Irish Centre for High End Computing (ICHEC) and the Irish Association for High Performance Computing (IAHPC), with research units in several major universities, such as Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Dublin City University.

I am assured, from a source close to the subject (I so rarely get to say that), that there are some exciting developments on this very topic to come in the near future, namely a tie up between space and HPC ambitions.

With the ability for Irish companies to model their space ambitions, a growing expectation for services and capabilities, accessible launch systems and cheaper development than ever before, we could soon see a viable space sector emerging here.

If all of that was underpinned by a supportive government framework, carefully coordinated with wider European efforts, then what could possibly stop it from succeeding?

Credit where it is due, the Space Strategy for Enterprise sounds like the kind of base-level planning and forward thinking that has not been seen for quite some time, and I include Ireland 2040 in that.

Space for the private sector is one of the truly exciting possibilities, and this strategy, if properly developed, and resourced, could provide a basis for Ireland to lead in the area from its early stages.




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