Irish space race launched at Inspirefest by Prof Susan McKenna-Lawlor

18 Jun 2015104 Shares

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Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor Founder and MD, Space Technology Ireland, with Dr Lucy Rogers Writer, It’s Only Rocket Science (left). Photo: Conor McCabe

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“Let me just float an idea out there…” Those were the understated words that preceded the biggest excitement at Inspirefest when Professor Susan McKenna-Lawlor suggested that Ireland should get on with building its own spacecraft.

Catching everyone off guard, including space commentator Leo Enright who hosted the panel where McKenna-Lawlor broached the subject, the idea very soon took hold, with the audience joining in to brainstorm the project.

This wasn’t just some outlandish claim though, not when you look at the pedigree Prof McKenna-Lawlor – a director with Space Technology Ireland Ltd (STIL) – has in this field.

In her time with STIL (she is there since its creation in 1986) Prof McKenna-Lawlor has overseen projects that have built instrumentation launched by ESA, NASA and the Chinese, Indian and Russian Space Agencies.

Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor Founder and MD, Space Technology Ireland, via Conor McCabe

Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor Founder and MD, Space Technology Ireland, via Conor McCabe

One of STIL’s most notable projects was with the Rosetta Mission, which saw a spacecraft chase down a comet for years, before landing a probe (Philae) on its surface.

You may remember it as that time last winter when absolutely everybody reawakened their love of space exploration for Philae’s descent, landing, and sleepy demise – it’s okay, Philae is awake again!

For Rosetta, the company designed, constructed and tested the onboard Electrical Support System (ESS) processor unit and when Philae was on the comet, the system played a key role in passing the streams of commands and data between the Rosetta spacecraft and the instruments on the Lander.

A space race in Ireland? Sign. Me. Up.

“Since the success of the Lander depends on the successful acquisition of scientific data from the comet nucleus, the ESS is defined to be mission critical hardware,” said Prof McKenna-Lawlor to us a few months before the mission was successfully executed.

So when Prof McKenna-Lawlor suggested that we “build and launch” our own spacecraft, everyone took notice.

Estimates of funding requirements (only €5m) were discussed, sponsors – many of whom would have been in the room watching the discussion – were encouraged and education was addressed.

Having followed a panel of next generation leaders – which included the 10-year-old EU Digital Girl of the Year for 2014, Lauren Boyle, as well as Emer Hickey and Ciara Judge – Prof McKenna-Lawlor spoke of how it is that generation we need to teach.

Lauren Boyle EU Digital Girl of the Year 2014, via Conor McCabe

Lauren Boyle EU Digital Girl of the Year 2014, via Conor McCabe

So many aspects of engineering is different in space, with soldering, textiles and pressure issues all entirely different to building cars or bridges on Earth.

“We should start teaching children in school these skills,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, agreed.

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com