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Ireland's space programme: what Irish tech developments are heading out of this world?

From exercising in space to 3D animations, here’s how Ireland is contributing to global research for future space missions.

Image: NASA/CXC/M.Markevitch et al

IRELAND HAS CONTRIBUTED to a wide range of research projects in conjunction with the European Space Agency over the four decades since becoming a member.

Last year, the Irish government contributed €14.029 million towards the ESA, according to figures from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. This funding includes Ireland’s contribution towards ESA mandatory programmes, such as studies on technology research, information systems and training programmes.

Ireland’s contribution also includes funding towards 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 its funding goes towards.

“Around 40 companies in Ireland are on contracted with the ESA at the moment,” Bill O’Brien of Enterprise Ireland told TheJournal.ie.

“If an Irish company has developed something required by the ESA, they still own the intellectual property from that. Our whole focus is on this to [advise the government to] put money into optional programmes which are related to other markets, like medical devices or telecom, where when the companies have that technology developed, they can go on to other markets with it.”

O’Brien says that companies in Ireland expect to generate €35 million through space programme work in 2012.

So what kind of developments are being made here that could be used in future space missions?

Talk to me

Irish-owned and Galway-based company Sybernet develops speech technologies including automated speech recognition, text-to-speech applications and speaker identification systems.

Voice-activated software has clear applications in space for situations where a crew member’s hands – or eyes – are occupied.

Sybernet founder John Melody told TheJournal.ie that under ESA funding, the company has added a speech interface to the command and control console for the International Space Station.

“They call it the ‘Crusade Project’ and it will be going into space sometime at the end of this year or early next year,” Melody said. “It’s going through the verification process and astronaut testing right now.”

“We’re also looking for opportunities to apply this in other difficult environments where a person needs access to complex procedure documents, but it’s not convenient to haul around a laptop because your hands are busy. You need to be able to navigate to the next instruction and this reads it out to you.

“You can ask it to go to a particular step, or figure, or image in the document and the system will move around the presentation of the document so you can see certain parts of it better, or if your eyes are busy, you can configure it to read back the content,” Melody added.

Operating in 3D

Cortona3D, head-quartered in Ireland with R&D in Russia, provides 3D visual communication and publishing software for product maintenance and training. The company has been working with the ESA for ten years and its products are used in training astronauts before they head into their zero-gravity working environment.

Since last summer, Cortona3D has been working with the ESA to develop a system that can build 3D interactive animated crew procedures regarding the automated transfer vehicle (ATV). The ATV is an unmanned spacecraft developed by the ESA to send supplies to the ISS:

YouTube credit: ESA

“The idea [of this project] is that the crew have access to a laptop – or maybe to an iPad or something like that in the future,” Cortona3D president Connell Gallagher told TheJournal.ie.

“They have a procedure to do for an experiment or something, or for the ATV – when that docks the crew have to do a series of procedures to do with moving oxygen or water and other materials. So instead of having a paper or pdf instruction, they have a 3D instruction that marks out everything they have to do. And that’s what we do – it’s almost like creating a gaming environment for viewing the instructions.”

“You can see in 3D on a screen what you have to do step-by-step, and you can pause at any point and move the image around independently within the scene, so even if the viewpoint that you’re looking at isn’t the most useful for what you’re doing, you can interact with this 3D model.”

Exercising – in space

Exercise and nutrition are essential components in keeping astronauts healthy in space. Space travel takes a lot out of you – bodies are subjected to much higher radiation levels while out of the Earth’s atmosphere; bone density reduces; muscle mass and cardiovascular capacity suffer.

However, as NASA’s Dr John Charles recently told TheJournal.ie, the limited size of a spacecraft means that conditions can be quite cramped for exercising on board.

Astronauts exercising on board the ISS (NASA)

BioMedical Research in Galway is the world’s leading producer of electrical muscle stimulator (EMS) products, such as Slendertone. The muscle-stimulating pads are designed to help tone muscles and the company produces a variety of products using this technology, including a belt to focus on abdominal muscles.

The company is currently involved in joint research with the UCD Institute for Sport and Health into the use of its products to help stimulate astronauts’ muscles while they work in the confines of a spacecraft.

Gary Rainsford, Slendertone Technical Expert, told TheJournal.ie that through an arrangement with Enterprise Ireland, the company has been funding masters and PhD students for the past four or five years to research EMS and its impact on spinal chord injury patients, diabetes treatment, and astronauts.

Rainsford and a colleague recently participated in an ESA test flight in France to carry out testing using their EMS technology in a zero gravity environment. The test flights are only carried out a couple of times each year.

“It was UCD who put the application in for the ESA flight – there were over 200 applicants and only nine accepted on board, Rainsford explained. “The plane goes out over the Atlantic where the pilots can perform a manoeuvre to create 20 seconds of zero gravity. We were wearing the technology giving a workout and we were checking things like oxygen consumption that happen during normal exercise.”

Rainsford says that although he’s not hungry to head into space himself, his experiences on board the test flight gave him a new appreciation for the level of fitness required of astronauts:

It’s like going up on a rollercoaster, only ten times over! We did it for just 20 seconds at a time, albeit 30 times, but there was one astronaut from Sweden there and to look at him, he looked like an athlete who could compete in the Olympics.

He said that although the experiment’s data needs to be fully written up, the preliminary results are positive.

“It’s very difficult and hugely expensive to get equipment into the space station to test it,” he said. ”We’re replacing a treadmill with a device not much bigger than an iPhone, which would be a huge advancement for companies like the ESA and NASA.”

UCD researcher Domenico Crognale said that although ESM is currently not a comprehensive replacement for aerobic exercise, “these machines have strong potential” for astronauts and have shown positive results to date.

“There are many ways people can exercise and achieve a certain amount of physiological results,” he said. “Before this new box and stimulation parameters were developed, the research showed a low physiological response as an aerobic way to exercise, but with this model, the results are very encouraging.”

Medical matters

Radisens Diagnostics in Cork is developing a new point-of-care blood testing system that would allow astronauts to test a small sample of blood and have the results in ten minutes.

The battery-operated unit can test a finger-prick of blood for diabetes, heart disease, liver and kidney damage, and thyroid conditions using just one device.

The company was awarded a 15-month €1m contract by the ESA in November 2011 to develop the device, and hopes it will also find a place in the GP market by saving doctors time and money in carrying out a number of blood tests on the unit.

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