Sky is not the limit for Irish space-tech sector

22 Apr 2014

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The European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rocket, using technology developed by Moog Dublin, launches from the spaceport in French Guiana on 22 March. Photo by JM Guillon/ESA-SNES-ARIANESPACE/Opitque Vidéo du CSG

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The date 3 April marked an important day for Europe’s space endeavours, as the first of six Sentinel Earth-observation satellites, Sentinel-1A, launched from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana.

The purpose of the satellites is to give European organisations and businesses a treasure trove of scientific data for the foreseeable future.

Ireland’s own space-technology sector is behind the technology that sends astronauts and satellites into space. Workers in the sector have been busy sending almost all the ESA’s space projects into orbit, whether it be the launcher rockets that take them up there, or the software that manages life-support systems on the International Space Station.

Having been one of the founding members of the ESA in 1975, Ireland’s contribution to space has been largely unheralded, including the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies’ contribution of cosmic ray measuring equipment to the Apollo 16 lunar-landing mission in the 1960s.

There are now more than 40 companies attributing their work to the Irish space-tech sector. Since 2000, more than 80 Irish companies have secured ESA contracts exceeding €80m in value, according to Enterprise Ireland, which represents Ireland’s connection between space-tech companies and the ESA, whose headquarters are in Paris.

Economic value

This year, Tony MacDonald, programme manager for space industry activities with Enterprise Ireland, had valued the indigenous space-tech sector as being worth an estimated €50m to the economy. Yet on further reflection, he sees the figure as an underestimate.

“The €50m is something that is always developing because if you look at the companies working with the ESA, most of them are in the developmental stage. We expect to see that number increase significantly in the coming years and predict €70m by the end of 2015 and growth again beyond that," MacDonald said.

In MacDonald’s view, the potential for future growth rests firmly in how the technology will develop as Irish companies can bring their services to commercial enterprises, as well as the traditional routes of government agencies.

“If you look at the market for this, there is a commercial launcher market that has developed in the past number of years in Europe," said MacDonald, "and particularly the US, where we’re seeing a lot of private-sector companies getting into the space business, such as SpaceX, which represents a market opportunity for Irish companies."

Established by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and co-founder of PayPal, the company is one the largest commercial space companies in the world. This week, SpaceX launched one of its latest rockets on contract with US space agency NASA to supply the International Space Station at a cost of US$1.2bn.

For the 40 or so Irish companies, their contributions lie mostly in the fields of rocket technology, such as multinational aerospace company Moog Dublin, optoelectronics maker FibrePulse, and software designer Skytek.

Moog established its Dublin office after acquiring AMPAC-ISP, a developer of space rocket propulsion components, in 2012 for €37m.

Moog’s worldwide revenues are estimated to be US$3.65bn this year, according to the company’s latest investor report, and staff at the Dublin office have begun developing thrusters for ESA satellites – a product development expected to generate more than €18m for the company over 25 years.

Sentinel-1A

The Soyuz VS07 rocket with the ESA’s Sentinel-1A satellite lifts off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on 3 April. Image via the ESA

Development time for space tech

Derek Harris, business development manager at Moog Dublin, said the development process of a company involved in the space-tech sector is considerably different from that of companies in many other fields. For instance, the time it will take for a space-tech company’s creation to be developed and actually reach outer space will be lengthy.

The ESA supports the long development cycle, said Harris, who added it takes about 10 years to get a product onto a space-bound platform, such as a telecoms satellite. This time frame poses an obvious challenge to companies looking to make quick returns within three to five years.

“You need to be very flexible and structured (in running a space-tech business), because a huge investment is required in documentation and management and quality," said Harris. "You carry a lot of overheads so that doesn’t help to make you competitive when you have a lot of admin costs which could make it quite bulky, particularly if you have investment in some specific facilities you might need."

The need to be precise and meticulous in development is by no means a case of bureaucracy. In the depths of space or the orbit of the Earth, the failing of even the smallest item, say a screw, could potentially turn a multi-billion euro spacecraft into a very expensive piece of space junk.

So what does a space-tech company do to generate profits in the period between early development and the launch of a satellite containing its product into space?

According to MacDonald, the importance of finding alternative commercial applications for a product is vital if Irish space-tech companies are to keep themselves afloat during these prolonged periods.

Harris gave the example of a valve Moog has been developing for a chemical space thruster that is hoped will one day be part of an interplanetary mission to orbit Mars. The thrusters are being developed by another Moog facility in Westcott, UK, and the valve itself is being developed in Dublin.

“You have to look at the valve and say you’ve developed it for chemical applications, but what else can it be used for?" said Harris. "You can’t sell it and put it on a radiator because a €30,000-€40,000 part won’t be much good on a house radiator."

Moog Dublin has been in discussions with a Norwegian company that is looking to use the valve in a cleaner-fuel rocket it is developing that could revolutionise how fuel is used in spaceflight.

ESA funding

More short-term projects like this keep companies such as Moog Dublin going, yet overall, the bulk of the entire sector’s funding lies largely in the hands of the ESA.

The ESA’s entire budget for 2014 is €4.1bn. Member states help fund the ESA’s budget, and Ireland is providing one of the smallest contributions for this year with €18.4m, or 0.6pc of the total €4.1bn.

Despite this, Ireland appears to have a strong hold within the ESA. MacDonald said 96pc of all developmental contracts signed between Irish companies and the ESA are related to technology and innovation, putting Ireland high above the European average. These contracts totalled €11m worth of funding to a number of these companies that are striving to put the next Irish-developed piece of equipment into orbit.

Individuals at the helm of companies in the Irish space-tech sector are now looking beyond Europe to the world, or should at least consider taking a global view, according to Harris.

“The future is still quite rosy in European space terms," said Harris, "but one of the things you realise is that any space industry has to be global, because if you’re looking to develop a widget, for example, and you need to maximise the volume of your production, you have to look to all corners of the world and where it can be used so you don’t tend to focus on Europe."

There’s no denying that Ireland’s multi-million euro space-tech industry would not be here today if it wasn’t for the country’s connection with the ESA and the funding that is provided through the agency.

“There’s a lot of hard-working people in Ireland (in the space-tech sector) and when you engage with people in the European space frame, they see good results for what they need," said Harris. "Once you engage with a particular company they’ll tend to come back to you for more solutions."

Sentinel-2A, the next ESA satellite scheduled to launch into orbit within the next year, will provide high-resolution optical imaging for land services. Irish companies such as Treemetrics, for example, use satellite imagery for forestry management.

The gains from satellite technology for other businesses is yet another area of the economy that can benefit from access to raw information, a process known as the ‘downstream’ effect, according to the ESA.

The European Commission also anticipates that the ESA’s Earth-observation programme Copernicus could generate a financial benefit of some €30bn to the European economy and generate 50,000 jobs in Europe by 2030.

A version of this article was published in The Sunday Times on 20 April

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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