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What does membership of the European Space Agency mean to Ireland?

It’s about cash and credibility as much as chasing comets.

Model of Ariane 5 space rocket and flags of members at the ESA space port in French Guiana.
Model of Ariane 5 space rocket and flags of members at the ESA space port in French Guiana.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

SINCE JOINING THE European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975, Irish industry and research groups have been helping shape European space programme, and earning a reputation as leaders in innovative space technologies.

Serving as a gateway to space for its member states, the European agency is second only to NASA when it comes to space spending and is a substantial contributor to the International Space Station.

However, despite these endeavours and many others, the ESA’s role in the modern space race is often dwarfed by big personalities who’ve helped commercialise the industry.

The ESA is a unique organisation, given its 22 member states collaborate while also having their own national space agencies and programmes.

ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher recently laid out the agency’s agenda for the next four years, with five priorities aimed at growing Europe’s role in the space economy, and solidifying the agency as a leader in the space industry.

Made up of 22 member states, the agency’s annual budget is heavily reliant on member contributions which have been steadily increasing over the years. This year the budget is €6.49 billion.

Ireland’s annual contribution of around €20 million accounts for just 1% of the total budget, but ESA senior officer Piero Messina told TheJournal that Ireland is a good example of how a small country can be very proactive in growing its space industry.

ESA_budget_2021 (2) (1) Source: ESA

The global space economy is valued at around €357.7 billion and for member states looking to cash in on the booming market, he says it’s all about finding the right balance between investing more in ESA and nurturing their domestic space sector.

“Ireland seems to take a step by step approach in comparison to the other countries but I think, in a positive sense, Ireland doesn’t want to box above their weight,” Messina told TheJournal.

Ireland has at least 34 companies working in the space industry right now (you can read more about Ireland’s role in the space race here) but how crucial has our ESA membership been over the years? 

And what does the future hold? 

Firstly, what is the ESA?

Before the ESA, Europe had the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), which was founded as the space race was heating up in 1964. By 1975 the ESRO had merged with another agency, the European Development Launcher Organisation to create the agency we have today.

Current member states include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

And based on their agreements with the ESA, Canada, Latvia, Slovenia, and Lithuania also qualify to fully participate in programmes run by the ESA Education Office.

Having previously focused on unmanned space flight and collecting scientific data, the merger meant that the ESA now had the mission to develop an independent European launch system. Another advantage of the merger, was its spaceport – Guiana Space Centre – just north of the equator in Kourou, French Guiana. Its location is considered ideal for putting satellites into orbit.

New launch capabilities resulted in the design of a heavy-weight rocket known as Ariane 1.

There have been six versions of the Ariane rocket since its first launch in 1973, but the pioneering design of the first Ariane meant it was capable of sending two satellites into orbit at once, ultimately saving ESA money.

The subsidiary company Arianespace took over the day to day launch operations of the Ariane programme in 1980, becoming the first commercial launch company. They’ve launched 987 satellites in total but have been commercially blown out of the water by Elon Musk’s SpaceX in recent years.

Since then the ESA has flown by comets, catalogued stars, found tonnes of exoplanets, orbited and studied Mars, Venus and the Sun, and landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan. They’ve measured all sorts of gamma rays and magnetic fields and worked with NASA on tonnes of projects, including the famous Hubble Space Telescope.

In one of their more high profile missions, they bounced a probe around the solar system for a decade, performing advanced gravity assist manoeuvres before landing on a comet.

The future is set to be no less exciting. Over the next few years, the ESA plans to study dark matter, look for more exoplanets, orbit Mercury with two probes at once, land a rover on Mars, look for life on Jupiter’s icy moons and launch the successor to Hubble – The James Webb Space Telescope, which Irish scientists also helped build.

Science return

Contributions from member states go toward to main categories. The first is the funding for ESA mandatory programmes, such as studies on technology research, information systems and training programmes.

The ESA science programme is the only mandatory element of agency membership but it is deemed necessary to “ensure the scientific community is provided with the best tools possible to maintain Europe’s competence in space”.

Under the programme, €1.5 million was awarded to support research at Irish institutes and universities last year. 

The second goes toward a number of optional programmes such as the development of launch vehicles, launcher technology, telecoms research, and remote sensing.

The mandatory contribution is determined by a member’s GDP, but governments can choose which optional programmes that part of their funding goes towards.

The agency itself is governed by a council that provides the basic policy guidelines within which ESA develops the European space programme. Each member state is represented on the council and has one vote, regardless of its size or financial contribution.

Professor Peter Gallagher, head of Astrophysics at DIAS, has worked with ESA in numerous capacities over the years. He was a member of ESA’s Solar System Working Group (2007-2009) and was a member of ESA’s Space Science Advisory Committee (2017-2019).

On these committees, ESA-selected experts look at proposals for scientific missions and working out which missions/space crafts the ESA is going to fund.

“It’s a very exciting role to see all the greatest ideas coming through from European scientists and trying to work out which ones best,” Gallagher told TheJournal.

The ESA also offers training opportunities to students that couldn’t be gotten on a national level in Ireland. UCD Physics Professor Lorraine Hanlon began her career as an ESA research fellow, and it was during that time she saw first-hand that the science return we gain from membership has an “incalculable impact”.

“All the missions I’ve worked on through ESA, have allowed us access to world-class data from the satellites that our students have been able to use in their papers, PhDs, and Masters and so on,” said Hanlon.

“You have a world-leading agency that we have access to the data from. Even if you don’t work on building the instruments or anything, the data becomes free at a certain point and you can use it freely.”

Professor Hanlon is currently leading the UCD team which is working to get the first-ever Irish-made satellite off the ground, as part of the ESA’s Fly Your Satellite Programme.

Professor Gallagher believes the country has only scratched the surface in what we can contribute to the European Space Programme, and in what we can get back.

“One of ESA’s roles is to help innovation happen in countries, and stimulate the growth of technical products that come from the interaction of ESA. It makes good business sense to have that interaction,” said Gallagher.

Badge of credibility

When it comes to getting your money’s worth, the agency operates on the basis of geographical return, which essentially means you get back what you put into ESA in the form of contracts – a pro-rata deal of sorts.

Member states will get back more or less the equivalent of their contribution via tenders for industrial contracts for space programmes. Given Ireland’s annual contribution is so small in comparison to others, funding the right optional programmes is essential.

This is where Enterprise Ireland comes in. It works with Irish start-ups and SMEs to help them develop products and services for the growing space market, and of course to secure those lucrative contacts from ESA.

Manager of Enterprise Ireland’s space programme Tony McDonald told TheJournal that while ESA’s contracts are financially important for Ireland’s space industry, the credibility that comes from working with ESA is priceless.

“ESA is pivotal to Ireland’s space industry because we don’t have a national space industry so the only way to qualify tech for space for Irish companies is through ESA,” explains McDonald.

“It has the resources, facilities and know-how to help companies to qualify and develop their tech for the space market.”

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According to McDonald the real return on investment comes when industries develop technologies with ESA support, qualify them for space flight, and then commercialise them for the space market.

“It’s like a credibility badge of honour you bring to the market,” he said.

“If a company wants to sell to a satellite manufacturer in Europe, US or Asia, for example, they need credibility and they need to demonstrate to the customer that the technology is proven to work in a space environment. And that means it needs to work to certain performance requirements, but also setting reliability standards.

You need to test it to the extreme: because if you put a piece of hardware in orbit and it fails, obviously you can’t go up and fix it. You’ve got to show the customer that this product, this technology is extremely reliable. So, the only way to do that for Irish companies is to test it and qualify it through ESA.

“And that’s really where the return on investment comes from.”

On the back of our €20 million contributions, 28 Irish companies received ESA backing last year – with contracts of a combined value of €11.5 million

Moving forward, the strategic focus of Enterprise Ireland is to advocate for investing more money into ESA optional programmes which are related to other markets, like medical devices or telecom – often referred to as the downstream market.

“We have to have to focus our limited investments on strategic priorities. And those strategic priorities are helping Irish companies – mostly SMEs and start-ups – to bring technology innovation to the space market.”

Over the past year, he said there’s been no sign of the growth in both the Irish downstream and upstream markets slowing down: “This growth is another badge of honour given Ireland starting position was different to the bigger members states, as we had to work with what we had.”

“And what we had are very innovative tech companies who were very good in areas like electronics, in photonics in materials in software. For Enterprise Ireland, it’s been about taking that technology innovation, and ensuring that works to the performance and reliability standards required by the space market.”

With the global space market predicted to be worth €1.2 trillion by 2050, McDonald says it just makes sense that Ireland’s contribution to the ESA increases.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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