Satellite technology secures Ireland’s place in space race
Irish companies are working on projects to advance less expensive space exploration
The modern space race is better likened to price wars between Tesco and Lidl than any geopolitical rivalries empires might have had in the past.
We already know how to do a lot of stuff in space (clearly this reporter is an expert in the field). Communications, space travel, GPS, etc. The challenge now is to make these rapidly developing sectors a little less Marks & Sparks so that we might all live “a Lidl” more.
Okay, it’s not that simple. We are still dealing in the tens of millions of euro range for many satellite projects. Today, the image data market – that companies such as Digital Globe work in – is worth about $1.5 billion a year. Digital broadcasting and space and communications consulting firm Euroconsult estimates this will reach about $3.6 billion by 2023.
But many ubiquitous services the average person relies upon depend on commercial satellite technology. So innovators must find ways to provide satellite-based services such as broadband, mobile phone communications and GPS, without breaking the bank.
Synergy is the word. Space-based anything has always been an expensive game. So if you can find technology originally designed for another purpose and apply it in the commercial satellite sector then you’re on to a winner.
“There are several examples of how Irish companies are bringing innovative technologies from non-space to space and in so doing reducing the costs, while achieving performance and reliability requirements for space,” says Tony McDonald, of the Irish delegation to the European Space Agency (ESA) at Enterprise Ireland.
SensL, a Cork-based SME, develops advanced silicon photomultipliers (SiPM), sensors that are used with extremely low levels of light and are deployed in various sectors including medical imaging and hazard and threat detection. However, in 2013 SensL secured a contract with the ESA to begin the development of the next-generation sensor for future space science missions.
Irish surface technology company Enbio had been working in the medical sector. But In 2012 it signed a contract with the ESA worth €500,000 to develop a “proprietary surface treatment for use as a ‘sunscreen’ to protect satellites as they travel through space.”
“The types of interfaces used in cars are now being used in satellites, as they are much cheaper and have been proven to withstand harsh conditions,” says Barry Kavanagh of start-up OCE Technology, based in Bray, Co Wicklow. OCE designs software tools to support companies developing embedded systems for the space and aerospace industries.
Chinese aerospace It is currently working with Enterprise Ireland and the ESA to develop software for a Chinese space and aerospace industry hardware manufacturer.
“UK-based company Astrium develops micro-satellites using what would be considered ordinary components,” says Kavanagh. “They bring them to a lab and simulate the space experience, conduct radiation testing etc. Some components will pass, some won’t, but if they do, they’ll use off-the- shelf components for space missions. Testing is one of the biggest expenses for any company involved in commercial space technology. It costs a lot of money to prove something will work in space.”
Synergy in this space works the opposite way too. “The space industry is trying to reduce the cost of everything,” says Kavanagh. “Our plan is to develop unique features required by our client but also by the ESA, that are transferable,” he says. “We know that if the ESA requires them then companies developing mobile phones, alarm systems, fridges, industrial automation etc will likely need them too.”
OCE Technology is one of a growing number of companies in Ireland to which the global commercial satellite industry goes when it has specific requirements.
“We have built a reputation for very innovative technologies that can be reliably used for satellite systems used in terrestrial and satellite communications,” says McDonald.
“We frequently find synergies between different markets. If you are designing a technology for satellites, you work in reliability engineering. There is very little margin for error. In other words, if you are prepared to put your name to it you had better be sure it’ll work.”
Constantly evolving Satellite technology is constantly evolving, so those in the business need to develop software and hardware that can adapt to changing needs in the marketplace.
“Klas Telecom builds network equipment for use with satellite networks and the bulk of our equipment is used with [remote communications providers] Inmarsat Networks,” explains Frank Murray, engineering manager at Klas Telecom in Dublin.
“While Inmarsat was initially created as a pan-national agency to provide emergency communications for ships and oil rigs, most of its business is now focused on providing internet access in remote areas.
“As Inmarsat have launched new satellite constellations, Klas has then developed network equipment to avail of those data services.”
It seems Ireland has its place in the latest space race.