Ireland told it must create a national space agency to compete globally

25 Aug 2017

The International Space Station in orbit. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

The Irish Government has been advised on the importance of a national space agency if the country is to become a global player in the sector.

As the International Space University’s Space Studies Program (SSP17) comes to a close in Cork this evening (25 August), 110 of the programme’s participants are to present a new report urging the Irish Government to place greater focus on the country’s growing space sector.

Of the four key recommendations of the report, the main priority was to establish a national space agency to help coordinate start-ups, companies and researchers working in this field in Ireland.

More than 60 companies currently work within the sector and have contributed as European Space Agency (ESA) partners in putting their technology aboard satellites and even the International Space Station (ISS).

However, the report said an Irish space agency would place more emphasis on developing the sector as well as advising the Government on space research, education, outreach, and industry development and investment.

Signing up to the Outer Space Treaty

The report also recommended that Ireland become a full member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and a signatory of its Outer Space Treaty.

By being outside of COPUOS, Irish space start-ups are largely unprotected from a legal perspective when it comes to commercial operations in space, meaning many of them flock to countries such as the UK, which is a member state.

“These oversights may hinder Ireland’s space sector development in the medium- to long-term future by impeding or diminishing valuable international cooperation or technology transfer programmes,” the report said, “also affecting commercial space start-ups that could potentially be of economic benefit to Ireland.”

The third recommendation made by the attendees was to increase investment in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) programmes nationally.

While the report commends events such as the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, it maintained that there should also be a greater focus on space, especially at university level.

An ‘Irish space office’

The final recommendation encourages the Irish Space Industry Group – a collective of a number of Ireland’s space companies formed in 2015 – to adopt a more formalised structure and reporting mechanism.

Effectively becoming an ‘Irish space office’, it advised that the restructured group needs to work better together for the sake of national space science and industry, rather than mostly looking outwards for investment and partnerships.

“The primary modes of Irish space industry development are through the private sector and ESA-supported ventures,” the report said.

“This is successful to a point – however, Ireland misses greater opportunities by not focusing its space research, development and business into strategically valuable sectors or technologies, according to an Irish policy.”

Adding some other thoughts, the report said that with an established Irish space sector in place, the country’s hugely successful pharmaceutical and biomedical industries could find some new opportunities.

Working with astronauts aboard the ISS, companies could discover how the human body reacts to long-term exposure to radiation in space, for example.

A familiar story

It is noticeable that many of the recommendations made by SSP17 are in line with that of space law expert Laura Keogh who, speaking with earlier this month, revealed that she had been lobbying the Government to establish a national space agency.

As she explained, while Ireland is about to send its first satellite into space with EIRSAT-1, future commercial satellites will need to protected by COPUOS.

“EIRSAT-1 is done by universities and isn’t commercial but if it was, there’s no protection for companies and no legislation in place. That is a big issue,” she said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic