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Dublin: 6°C Wednesday 1 December 2021

We're signing off from The Good Information Project's 'space module'

Thanks for travelling with us – we’ll see you in the next phase.

WE’VE BEEN ON quite the journey here at The Good Information Project over the last few weeks, diving into modern space exploration and answering the question of what is Ireland’s place in space.

As always, we looked for our readers to get in touch with their questions and queries and many did via the usual social channels, as well as through our reader poll and open thread.

So nearly three weeks on from our launch, what have we all learned?

A common comment that crops up whenever space exploration is brought up is – essentially – ‘why bother when there are so many pressing issues that could be addressed instead?’.

Space commentator Leo Enright addresses that very question in an opinion piece for us here - outlining how space technologies impact our everyday lives. 

For many, questions around space exploration aren’t at the forefront of minds like they may have been during the US-Soviet Space Race in the 60s.

Nevertheless, the coverage of some high-profile billionaires is playing an increasing role in renewing public interest in the sector – companies backed by the likes of Bezos and Musk are involved in everything from launching rockets and satellites to transporting cargo and crew.

With the help of Ireland Thinks, we wanted to gauge Irish public opinion on who they think is winning the space race – if they think space tourism will become commonplace in the future, and most importantly, whether they would undertake such a trip.

We found that 35% of the public believe space tourism will become commonplace within the next 50 years, while just 28% would be willing to go at all.

When it came to the space race, the Americans remain ahead with NASA the answer for 27% of Irish people surveyed. The enterprise founded by Elon Musk – SpaceX – was second in our poll with 23%.

The European Space Agency (ESA) was cited by just 2% as leading the modern space race, so it should come as no surprise that further polling revealed that some 40% of people Ireland’s annual contribution of €20 million to the ESA should decrease. Some 37% of those surveyed believe the contribution should stay the same.

The ESA’s budget for this year is €6.49 billion, with Ireland’s contribution making up just 1% of that. The ESA currently operates on a pro-rata basis, meaning the more money nations put in the greater number of lucrative contracts they can be awarded. So, a decrease in funding would likely mean fewer opportunities for Irish industry and academics.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

In the five decades since Ireland became a member of the European Space Agency, it has contributed to a wide range of research projects and been awarded countless commercial contracts worth millions – benefiting both our educational and commercial space sectors. Only in 2019 however, did the then-government decide to put together a National Space Strategy for Enterprise.

As CJ McKinney explains, the strategy measures success not only in the number of ESA contracts won, but in turnover and employment at “space-active” Irish companies. The goal is for both to double by 2025.

The global commercial space sector is estimated to grow to a trillion-dollar business in a matter of years, and Ireland is eager to get its fair share. Part of the strategy’s function is to persuade relevant multinationals to take Ireland seriously as an investment destination, and the best way to do this is by building on our existing tech sector.

But without sustained private investment, Ireland’s space sector is firmly tethered to the ESA for the foreseeable future.

A progress report on the strategy is due by year-end, but over the course of this cycle, we’ve learned that ESA membership is worth more than the monetary return. Given Ireland has no national space agency, the ESA is the main way Irish companies can qualify their technologies for space flight, and ultimately commercialise them for the space market.

Likewise, in the absence of a national space agency, the ESA provides training opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available to Irish students – be that at ESA HQ or in Ireland through the agency’s educational programme.

One benefactor of the ESA’s Fly Your Satellite Programme is a team of students and academics in UCD who are now in the final stages of trying to get the first-ever Irish-made satellite off the ground.

Once orbit the satellite will collect data from the three science experiments on-board while powering itself, orientating itself, and communicating back to UCD. One problem the team hopes it won’t run into is space junk. 

The increase in man-made space objects is a more or less direct consequence of the rise of the private space industry. Ian Curran took a look at the impact it’s having on space exploration, and what is being done about it. 

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And when it comes to the question of when will have an Irish born-astronaut, we’re probably closer to that than ever been, thanks to the ESA.

Fewer than 600 people have ever made the trip to space in the history of humanity, so there was naturally a lot of interest earlier this year when the ESA opened applications for its astronaut training programme for the first time since 2008.

Out of the 23,000 applied, 270 of them were Irish.

Cillian Murphy (not that one) is one of the Irish hopefuls who is eagerly awaiting an update from the ESA – expected this November. Cillian, who currently works as an engineer for a biofuels company in Budapest, spoke with Cormac Fitzgerald about pursuing his dream of getting to space – and the risks that come with it.

For anyone looking for inspiration on how to take space exploration into your own hands, look no further than Raheny Observatory. The man behind the back garden observatory is Dave Greenan, an amateur astronomer living in North Dublin who’s made five independent discoveries from his back garden.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The future of Ireland’s space sector certainly looks bright, before we sign off and move to the next cycle of the Good Information Project (watch this space) – but let’s not forget Ireland’s ancient astronomers.

Early dwellers built clever structures to work in harmony with the cosmos, most notably the winter solstice sunrise illumination at Newgrange. But according to Anthony Murphy, it is unlikely that their curiosity about astronomy stopped with the sun, given they had the advantage of clearer night skies.

“Without the hindrance of light pollution and atmospheric haze, the people of the New Stone Age would have enjoyed a pristine night sky, allowing them to track the monthly movements of the Moon against the background stars of an ancient zodiac,” Murphy writes here.

And lastly, to see how much attention you’ve really been paying to this series, test out or quiz on the modern space race.

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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