Irish group aims to join space race with small satellite

UCD workshop seeks to win support and funding for project

Ireland may soon join the space race with a satellite of its own, providing useful services such as fisheries protection, land use or coastal studies.

There is a small matter of money, probably in the region of €5 million, but there is plenty of expertise, both in Irish academia and in the private sector.

The Irish Space Industry Group was formed last year with the idea of promoting a small satellite programme for Ireland.

It is now seeking to win support for the project, says Prof Lorraine Hanlon of University College Dublin.

Prof Hanlon is a member of the UCD Space Science Group but she also serves as communications manager for Isig.

“It is a good way for small companies to get involved in space activity,” she says.

The group has organised a workshop on March 10th at 3pm at UCD’s Science Hub to discuss the project and to gauge interest in launching a satellite programme.

“We want to get as many people who are interested in this in a room and start sharing ideas,” she says. “We will kick the tyres on these ideas and get to know each other.”

It might be possible to buy a launch for as little as €100,000 but Dr Ronan Wall of Moog Dublin Ltd has higher ambitions.

“I am talking in the order of €2 million or €2.5 million per mission and ideally have two spacecraft to launch,” Dr Wall, who is secretary of Isig, says.

This may seem a lot but it costs a fortune to put things in space. Rockets of this size would probably lift several kilos, putting the payload into an orbit about 66km up.

His company – one of 20 companies involved so far in Isig – manufactures Vulcain engine supports for the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket.

About 80 companies here have had at least some involvement with ESA, but Isig wants this to grow.

Satellite launches

Involvement in satellite launches allows researchers and companies to show what it can do.

“It builds capability. It puts us in a position to use know-how to bid for bigger and better contracts,” Dr Wall says.

“If you build something, technology or software or electronics that you try out in space, this puts you in a position to sell that product to ESA.”

Prof Hanlon says there is a trend towards smaller, less expensive satellites that can still deliver valuable data.

They are referred to as cubesats or nanosats that, although small, can be used for earth observation and to carry small lightweight experiments.

The key is to get your technology into orbit to show that it can survive the punishing space environment.

“It gives you flight heritage when your satellite has flown and survived,” Prof Hanlon adds.

She hopes that money could be raised through research grants, government, industry and through international collaboration.

The group has opened a call for ideas for the project and these must be submitted by March 24th. More information is available at irishspaceindustrygroup.com