Ireland’s first Earth observation ground station launched at National Space Centre
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Rory Fitzpatrick (left), chief executive of the National Space Centre, Midleton, Co Cork, and Simon Chesworth of exactEarth. Photograph: Gerard McCarthy
It is a most incongruous sight on the road out of Midleton. Drive through prosperous east Cork farming country and it appears on the top of a hill, a high-tech, high-spec jumble of satellite receivers and antennas completely at odds with its bucolic surroundings.
The centre, also known as Elfordstown Earthstation, was set up in 1984 by Telecom Éireann to establish a satellite phone link between Europe and the United States. It became obsolete in 1997 with the laying of transatlantic fibre cables and was mothballed by the company.
Eventually it was bought in 2010 by Mr Fitzpatrick and a consortium who spotted an opportunity in the burgeoning world of television and satellite broadband. Ireland, at mid-latitudes, is well placed to pick up satellite signals and the Midleton site was specially chosen because it is in a valley which blocks out extraneous radio signals.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was sufficiently interested to make a diversion from opening a new distillery in Midleton to take a look at its operation.
He was there to launch Ireland’s first Earth observation ground station, a 3.7 metre fast-track antenna concealed in a pod that looks like an overgrown egg. The system can track any ship in the world which has AIS, the automatic identification system which ships over a certain tonnage must have under international law.
On the wall of the centre, thousands of little dots can be seen spanning the globe. The Irish station can not only track ships, but also patterns.
Mr Fitzpatrick showed the Taoiseach how the epidemic of piracy off east Africa accounted for the lack of shipping in the area. The information is fed to exactEarth, a Canadian company that sells the information to the maritime industry.
“I actually see enormous potential in this, not as much as can be explained to me in English that I can understand,” Mr Kenny joked. “This centre is only at the beginning of something that can be really exciting.”
The centre manages satellite broadband for Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Egypt. It also tracks Astra satellites to ensure they stay in the right place.
Mr Fitzpatrick said the centre hoped to invest €80 million within the next 10 years in an array of antennas to be used by commercial interests and satellite television countries, depending on how many contracts it could win. The centre employs 12 people and he said he hoped that could rise to 65 in the next decade.
His most immediate plan is to refurbish the old Eircom antenna to use it in tracking the 600,000 pieces of man-made space junk flying above Earth.