Dublin is launch pad to find more efficient ways for astronauts to work

It is hoped there is plenty more to come from Irish firms operating in the space sector

Dublin may not be the most obvious place in which to hold a gathering of astronauts and scientists who intend to discuss procedures on board the International Space Station.

After all, notwithstanding our deep love for the retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, our capital is no Cape Canaveral.

But it proved to be up to the job of hosting the week-long working group, which included key personnel from Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The snappily titled Operations Data File (ODF) and International Procedure Viewer (iPV) Working Group was in town to discuss future technical requirements for the ISS. Its decision to meet here is being seen as a vote of confidence in Ireland's thriving space sector.


The long-term future of the space station may be in doubt as a result of Russian plans to kick Americans off it in 2020 in retaliation for recent sanctions, but experts are still busily discussing what it may need in the years ahead.

With most of the discussions remaining top secret it is unclear exactly what impact the Dublin sessions will have, but the head of the Nasa delegation, Mike Hurt, was optimistic about what it could achieve.

"The group we have is responsible for writing the procedures that the crew and ground control will use to operate the ISS, so we're looking at everything, including the introduction of new technology," he told The Irish Times.

Tony McDonald, programme manager for space industry activities with Enterprise Ireland, said he believed the group's visit was good news for the country's burgeoning industry.

"The fact that the group has come to Ireland shows that we have Irish companies who can perform to the highest standards required for space programmes," he said.

Since 2000 more than 80 companies have secured ESA contracts exceeding €80 million in value.

Meanwhile, the level of spin-off exports from Irish investment in ESA was estimated at €50 million in 2013, and is projected to grow substantially as companies continue to exploit technologies developed for the various space programmes.

The Dublin-based firm Skytek, which hosted the working group, is a prime example of a firm getting more out of space technology. Last week it announced a new space storm monitoring division to help organisations manage the many threats posed by phenomena such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Skytek has previously developed tech for the ISS that is now being rolled out across a number of other sectors.

As Dr Sarah Bourke, chief executive of Skytek, said, the gathering was anything but a PR exercise. Rather it was a closed session in which experts were actively considering ways to help astronauts to work more effectively.

“While it may seem simple, introducing new technology such as a tablet PC for use on the space station can take a long time to get clearance on so these meetings help to get agreement on such things.”

She should know. Skytek’s International Procedure Viewer (iPV) system, which is used to store, control and manage all procedures relating to routine daily tasks and mission-critical events such as space walks and emergency procedures, has been used on the ISS for nearly 10 years.

Tracy Caldwell-Dyson is one person who has used Skytek technology. The Nasa astronaut was part of the Expedition 24 crew that served on board the ISS in 2010 and performed three successful space walks to remove and replace a failed pump module on the station.

She said that thousands of procedures are carried out on the ISS, covering everything from experiments to system maintenance.

“A lot of people are wishing they could be in Dublin for this. It’s a different route to the one we usually take for our business but it’s great to be here and meet the people who are helping to work on the space station.”

Another astronaut who’s familiar with the technology is Léopold Eyharts, who works for the ESA and served aboard the space station in 2008.

The Frenchman said standard procedures are crucial for day-to-day activities on board the ISS and all have to be catalogued.

“Everything is done by procedure. The astronauts spend six months on the space station and you cannot know everything by heart so there are procedures for everything.”

Skytek’s technology means astronauts no longer use paper on board the station. With newer features such as voice recognition and the ability to control activities automatically, it seems that those living and working in space will continue to use iPV.

Eyharts said he was impressed by the work achieved by Irish companies on spaceflight projects and other programmes.

“If you want to work on these types of projects you need to have a good reputation and to do great work in designing and building efficient things.”

The ESA's project leader Mickeal Wolff agrees. "We've been working with Irish companies for some time now. What distinguishes them is that they are usually small and smart, which gives them great flexibility when working on complex research programmes. We've seen that they always pull their weight, and put in that extra effort when things get tricky."

This is all music to the ears of Tony McDonald, who believes there’s plenty more to come from Irish firms operating in the sector.

“We’re working with about 40 companies that are engaged with the ESA on contract across software, electronics, advanced materials and diagnostics,” he said.

“Many of these firms are developing new technologies for the space programmes and then spinning this out to other sectors. This shows that space is both a market of its own and a route into other industries.”