This past Saturday night, guests at Astronomy Ireland’s annual fundraising event, Star-B-Q, were privy to an historic moment: the reveal of the name of the first Irish space mission — Cumar.
Guest of honour Prof Susan McKenna-Lawlor – who has been involved with missions launched by the five main space agencies, and who is Professor Emeritus at Maynooth University – was on hand to unveil details of the Irish space mission she first mooted on stage at Inspirefest 2015.
Most crucial was the announcement of the mission’s name, something McKenna-Lawlor said was being waited for with bated breath by people as far afield as Colorado.
The rumours held true, with McKenna-Lawlor announcing that the mission was to be called Cumar – the Irish word for confluence – chosen because the project represents “a confluence of ideas, and a confluence of strengths and knowledge”.
Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com immediately after the announcement, McKenna-Lawlor gave a tentative time period for launch, saying, “We hope that there would be an opportunity in the last few months of 2016.”
McKenna-Lawlor’s announcement also touched on a number of other details relating to Cumar.
Cumar’s mission, she said, would be to gain new understanding of space weather. Negotiations are in progress to include in the spacecraft’s payload experiments from Chinese, Canadian, German, Japanese, Slovakian and British teams, each aiming to gain further insights into different aspects of space weather and its effect on society, the planet and technology.
In addition to scientific equipment, Cumar will be carrying a sculpture already commissioned from an Irish sculptor, who will use space-qualified materials in its construction.
“Music, poetry and literature will form part of the onboard activities. We have two sides to the brain, and we need to have everybody taking part,” said McKenna-Lawlor.
‘Cumar represents a confluence of ideas, and a confluence of strengths and knowledge’
– PROF SUSAN MCKENNA-LAWLOR
Of course, the Irish space mission’s flashpoint was that Inspirefest moment, where McKenna-Lawlor opened with perhaps the most understated line in Irish history – “Let me just float an idea out there…” – before hitting the Inspirefest audience, and panel moderator, Leo Enright, with the entirely-out-of-left-field concept of launching the first Irish space mission.
For one person at least, that announcement wasn’t so completely out of nowhere.
“Of course this has been in my head, and it has been maturing for a long time,” said McKenna Lawlor when speaking with Siliconrepublic.com.
“I have noted that there will be a very large number of significant and important jobs coming up in the space industry, and it seems to me that it’s very important that people in Ireland get geared up to benefit from that. And this is a very good way to do it, and a very enjoyable way.”
Cumar a mission of education
Clearly, McKenna-Lawlor doesn’t see Cumar’s mission as a solely scientific endeavour. For her, it is primarily one of education.
In an exciting moment, McKenna-Lawlor revealed plans to launch a nationwide competition to find a core group of male and female engineering students – the professor stressed the importance of having both genders well represented – who would be involved with all aspects of the Cumar preparations and launch.
Those lucky, successful few will gain hands-on experience in spacecraft construction, the mounting of instruments and other sub-systems, and spacecraft tracking, “so they will be enabled to input to the mounting of future space missions within Ireland”.
Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, McKenna-Lawlor said the students’ involvement would be a learning experience.
“There are special skills in, for example, the soldering and in the cabling of instruments that fly in space. There are special techniques, and in order to be able to build something that will work reliably in the space environment, it is necessary to learn these skills.”
Ireland’s place in the global space industry
She went on to highlight the importance of building a core group of Irish people who could contribute to the global space industry.
“We live in the space age, and it’s necessary for young people to get up to speed in the techniques that they need to participate fully in this new world that we live in.”
The students will also be given the opportunity to speak to the media, on television and radio, about Cumar and their involvement with the project.
McKenna-Lawlor expects that the competition will be launched before Christmas of this year.
Beyond the competition, McKenna-Lawlor also intends that Cumar be accessible to all schoolchildren, and to the Irish public, with data gathered aboard the spacecraft being revealed and explained publicly.
“I think this can be enormous fun for everybody, and that they can, in the meantime, learn quite a bit about the Earth’s environment and about space, through following what’s going on,” said McKenna-Lawlor during her talk.
Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Eircom, Fidelity Investments, ESB, Accenture and CoderDojo.
Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.
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