IComp in University of Limerick lands a big one with major ESA research project

12 Mar 2015

A small research group in Limerick has just been awarded a €240,000 research project with the European Space Agency (ESA), investigating how to make space travel a bit more sustainable.

The Irish Centre for Composites Research (IComp) at the University of Limerick (UL) is looking at “Demisable Bio-Composite Materials” as part of ESA’s Clean Space initiative which is, in part, establishing a way to make space a bit less cluttered with junk.

Essentially ESA’s goal is to safeguard both the terrestrial and space environments, which is fairly serious when you think of what a small bit of old satellite debris can do to a manned spacecraft.

The issue of ‘clean space’ is quite broad, but one of the main topics within it – while not necessarily relating to IComp’s project – is perhaps best illustrated when looking at the recent explosive break-up of a US satellite in space.

After an investigation, ESA found no risk to any of its nearby missions, however although it caused no problem this time, it’s an on-going risk to some of man’s most technologically advanced machines.

Space going green

Demisability – the ability of a material to disintegrate during an atmospheric re-entry – plays an important role in ESA’s future plans, and it is key to IComp’s project.

Carbon fibres when used in spacecraft could pose a risk upon atmospheric entry because they don’t break up, meaning they pose a risk when eventually hitting a surface.

“It’s not just looking at a material that’s just demisable,” explains Norah Patten, communications and outreach manager at IComp.

“That’s one aspect of it, but it’s also to look at sustainable materials. So bio-composites are great sustainable environmental material because of the fact that they’re natural. So it’s to look at both the effects on Earth and in space.”

Patten is excited with the project, and understandably so, as this is the first primary role that IComp has worked on with ESA, opening the door to greater Irish-based research in future.

Indeed ÉireComposites, a company that has previously led research in this field, with IComp supporting, is now aiding the UL-based centre.

“For us it’s such a big deal. Overall in space terms it doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but for Comp and UL it opens the door into more space research,” says Patten.

Once you get your first as prime you know what’s involved. The proposal is all new, the budgets are all new. Once you get that first go, it makes things less daunting to go for it again.”

Satellite breaking up image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic