How Ireland is building a strong reputation in Europe’s space programme

Space strategy is reaping dividends with industry and research groups consistently providing groundbreaking technologies to ESA

Since Ireland joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975, Irish industry and research groups have been building a reputation as providers of innovative technologies for use in the European space programme.

Recently, Ubotica Technologies, a Dublin space-tech company, delivered the very first AI-enabled satellite launch system by ESA; in 2020, the inventors of a novel metal surface technology, EnBio, dispensed vital heat shields for the ESA Solar Orbiter mission; and the on-board cameras provided by Realtrá space for the James Webb telescope launch in December 2021 were integral to ensuring a successful deployment of this Nasa, ESA, and Canadian Space Agency-led international science mission.

Danny Gleeson, chief commercial officer at Realtrá Space, outlines the impact of these achievements: “The positive aspects of these business successes are starting to permeate the media and press. But it didn’t just happen. It’s been a long time coming, culminating over many years in 2019 with the publication of a national space strategy.”

It was really a critical moment for Ireland to have a space strategy. I think that was crucial. It was a big step

The Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment (DETM), in partnership with Enterprise Ireland (EI), makes up the Irish delegation to ESA. In 2019, with a steering group of representatives working in the Irish space sector, the strategy was published.


It set out detailed targets to be accomplished over the following five years: it sought to double the space-related revenues for industries, to support 100 companies, to double participation in EU programmes, to increase awareness of space activities in Ireland, to upgrade skills, and to create a sustainable Earth observation sector in the country.

Dr Niall Smith, head of research at Munster Technological University (MTU), and Higher Education Institution representative on the steering group for the strategy, says: “It was really a critical moment for Ireland to have a space strategy. I think that was crucial. It was a big step, and now we need to revisit it because things have changed so much, we need to take it to the next stage now.”

We have already reached 95 per cent of the national space strategy targets just three years in since its publication, confirms EI’s Conor Sheehan, a member of Ireland’s delegation to ESA. The announcement last November of further funding by the Government for ESA – €125 million up to 2027 – is an important signal to the sector that it intends to support and grow this sector further.

Gleeson says: “They did a lot of analysis and [it] saw a return on investments of up to seven times the investment. This has encouraged the Government to invest more.”

A DETM spokeswoman explained: “It is important that we seek to continue to capitalise in this fast-growing market by harnessing new opportunities for Irish enterprises. Government investment in ESA has increased from €19.8 million in 2020 to over €30 million in 2022. This increased funding has led to 39 per cent of Irish-based companies engaged with ESA, growing from 70 in 2019 to 97 in 2022. Furthermore, industry co-investment increased from €3.3 million in 2020 to over €4.8 million in 2022.”

“We’re not trying to develop a space sector per se, in Ireland,” Sheehan adds. “We have several companies that are devoted and dedicated to space, and they do it extremely well.”

This upstream business is thriving in Ireland, and there are many examples; Líos is an acoustics company that pivoted its business for French rocket company Ariane, to provide a new variation of its acoustic protection in the rocket’s fairing, while Innalabs, which specialises in gyroscopes and accelerometers, has also pivoted its business to provide their hardware and systems to the space sector.

The focus in Ireland by government agencies is, rather, to develop the downstream business. “Significant opportunities are emerging from using earth observation (EO) data to develop high-value services,” the DETM spokeswoman added. “It is important that we seek to continue to capitalise in this fast-growing market, by harnessing new opportunities for Irish enterprises.”

“As we face up to the realities of what they call New Space and Space 4.0, we have to be much quicker than we have been in the past,” Sheehan says. “The days of having multiple years to develop technology are gone.”

We can be more than the sum of our parts on this, and actually do really well

Space is a market vertical like any other vertical, he adds. “Instead, we seek to spin technologies in from existing research groups or terrestrial companies.”

Treemetrics Ltd, based in Cork, which uses Earth observation data to provide global forest management solutions, is one such “spin-in” or downstream business. Partnering with seven other institutions and companies, it recently secured €6.4 million in funding from the Government’s Disruptive Technologies Fund to develop a sustainable internationally trading Earth observation services sector in Ireland.

Funding supports are available for those interested in pursuing new downstream business ideas. The Irish ESA Business Incubation Centre initiative, run by the ESA Space Solutions Centre Ireland, is based at Tyndall Institute in UCC. “We’re targeting companies to develop downstream applications,” says its chief executive Peter Finnegan.

Companies that have received support from the centre include PlasmaBound, TisaLabs, Aerial Agritech, Proveye and Danu Sports, a wearable sports analysis equipment provider.

Can we attribute the growth of the space sector to our membership of ESA, or are there other players involved?

“I believe it’s a change in space business behaviour,” Smith of MTU says. “You’re seeing private companies now being asked to provide, on much shorter timescales, a solution to a commercial problem, and we’re seeing even ESA moving in that direction.”

He is keen to stress that the Irish downstream business is not limited to ESA-related activities: “We’re seeing the EU space programme encouraging SMEs (small to medium enterprises), and various new financing models that have come in to help, which give you capital, sometimes ventures, sometimes equity, to push along these new business ideas.”

We’re not trying to develop a space sector per se, in Ireland. We have several companies that are devoted and dedicated to space, and they do it extremely well

Mark McCarville, chief executive of Mindseed, has been assisting companies since 2011 to leverage ESA funding. “There’s been a kind of a democratisation of space,” he says. “An awful lot of companies now are beginning to see the benefits of being able to integrate a whole lot of these space assets. So over time, they’re learning from emerging technologies and how they can join in.”

Michael Martin, engineering manager of Realtrá Space, believes a space cluster may support further sector development. “There’s no focal point where all the space companies come together and even new companies or companies that are interested in getting into it, hear what the challenges are, start to partner with experienced companies and build that ecosystem up,” he says. “That’s absolutely critical for the space industry going forward.”

Dr Ronan Wall, manager of the UCD Centre for Space Research, agrees. “We can be more than the sum of our parts on this,’ he explains, ‘and actually do really well. And it would be great if this crucial space cluster be recognised internationally.”

Gleeson believes public awareness of Irish space nationally and internationally is key. “We’re pretty poor at self-publicity,” he says. “We’re pretty poor at the wonderful stories that all the companies have in their space activities and the people that work in them as well.

“The big thing for me would be to have national awareness. I mean, it’s incredible what Irish people have done in space. And also, for people to realise the benefit it is to the country.”

All the Irish space players look forward to the publication of an updated national space strategy and the possibility of a space cluster. For now, EI will continue to champion Ireland’s capabilities in both upstream and downstream space activities.

“The quality of activity in Ireland is at a level where we’re getting more recognition internationally for what we can do,” says Sheehan. “I’m working with several industry partners to create the Irish Space Association and when that comes on board, we’ll be able to get the message out more fully. There’s a lot of really good stuff going on and great opportunities for individuals in the future.”