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Ireland has at least 34 companies working in the space industry - so what is our role in the space race?

“When the first guy steps onto Mars, the whole planet is going to stop and watch – and you’re going to have an explosion of interest in space”

A FEW MILES north of Midleton, past the East Cork Golf Club, a gigantic satellite dish points to the sky.

Since 2010 this site has been the home of the National Space Centre, a private company hired by satellite operators to communicate with their orbital assets.

The rural location is no coincidence, says CEO Rory Fitzpatrick. “Within Ireland, the south has a better view for satellites. Within the south, Cork has the best infrastructure. And within Cork, we’ve hills the whole way round, making it very quiet”.

The iconic ‘Big Dish’ – 32 metres across – isn’t in use any more, but the company has around 30 more modern (if less visually arresting) antennas, looked after by a dozen staff.

elfordstown-midleton-co-cork-ireland-24th-march-2019-a-clear-cold-morning-at-the-national-space-centre-earthstation-elfordstown-outside-midl The huge satellite dish at the National Space Centre Source: Alamy Stock Photo

As well as talking to and directing satellites, they also help crunch the resulting Earth observation data, which can be used to keep tabs on everything from forest fires to migrant boats.

A lot of what goes on above our heads is just like this: Earth-focused, rather than about exploring the universe. The European Union’s space agency, for example, oversees the Copernicus earth observation programme and Galileo satellite navigation system, but no missions to Mars: it’s more about Uber than ET. 

Irish scientists do dabble in the interstellar. Dr Nicholas Devaney of NUI Galway points to Ireland’s membership of the European Southern Observatory, a 16-country organisation currently building the Extremely Large Telescope, set to be the world’s largest. “The other big development is that we have one of the antennae of LOFAR”, Devaney says, referring to a multi-country project for listening to extraterrestrial radio waves. “It’s made up of antennae distributed across Europe and there’s one now in Birr, County Offaly. So that’s another facility that Irish astronomers and researchers have access to”.

But space exploration as such isn’t a government priority. “To get any kind of blue-skies funding from Science Foundation Ireland for astrophysics and that kind of thing is difficult because it doesn’t align with any of the national research priorities”, Devaney says.

Source: Shutterstock/Mechanik

The state is more interested in what Professor Louis Brennan of Trinity College Dublin calls “the business of space”. Co-author of a book by that name in 2011, Brennan says that since then “the pace and scale of growth in the business of space has been quite extraordinary… the overall global space sector is reckoned today to be of the order of $350 billion (around €300 billion). Serious estimates see that growing to a trillion dollar business in a matter of years”.

Ireland’s plan for getting a piece of that pie is outlined in the National Space Strategy for Enterprise. Launched in 2019, part of its function is to persuade relevant multinationals to take Ireland seriously as an investment destination. “That was a really, really important thing”, Fitzpatrick says of the strategy. “It doesn’t matter what’s in there – we have one”. He predicts that US space companies will start setting up operations here soon: “I would expect that to be a catalyst to create a vibrancy that we haven’t had yet”.

Fitzpatrick’s is one of the more mature companies in what remains a small, if growing, Irish space sector. Enterprise Ireland, in charge of nurturing the industry, lists 34 businesses in its “space industry directory”, while around 80 have secured contracts with the European Space Agency over the past decade. 

They include Galway-based optics firm mBryonics, which is looking at how to talk to satellites using lasers, and ENBIO, which makes “sunscreen for satellites” in Clonmel. A spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment reels off an impressive list of technologies being pursued: “avionics, electronics, propulsion subsystems, antennae, opto-electronics, structures, advanced materials, software data systems, data analytics, geo-science and astrophysics”.

What’s missing is any suggestion of an Irish Nasa or SpaceX. But the lack of anything resembling an indigenous space programme is beside the point, says Mark McCarville of tech and telecommunications consultancy Mindseed. “You don’t have to be launching rockets to get into space”, he tells The Journal. “Ireland’s place is more of a component or subsystems supplier” – part of the supply chain for space missions or satellite launches, rather than organising them.

Brennan agrees there are opportunities that don’t require anyone with an Irish passport to experience zero gravity, building on our existing tech sector. “There are factors at play which suggest that Ireland can play a role in space — in terms of concentrations of industry, in terms of technology, in terms of data, strengths in IT, materials science, nano-science. Having expertise and specialisms in those areas is a very good foundation in terms of developing technologies for the space sector”.

Start-ups get some initial support from Enterprise Ireland, but the crucial next step tends to be a contract from the European Space Agency. The 22-member organisation, which is separate from the EU, placed €11.5 million worth of contracts with 28 Irish firms last year. Of those, a record 13 were securing one for the first time. McCarville, who helps companies with the ESA tendering process, says the majority of his clients are newcomers. “That’s what the Irish delegation [at ESA] want to see – new industry coming in all the time”.

The agency also funds research: Devaney’s team at NUI Galway is involved in “developing technology for a future experiment to test quantum mechanics in space”, as well as working on “active optics” for space telescopes.

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But unlike the EU money that helped boost the Irish economy over the years, this ESA funding ultimately comes from the Irish government. Under the organisation’s “geographical return” rule, most of our €19 million annual subscription is effectively earmarked for Irish companies; the flipside is that German ESA money also stays largely in Germany. The challenge for the nascent Irish space sector is to move beyond the need for this indirect state support by winning commercial contracts and attracting private investment. 

Source: Shutterstock/shutting

 The latter can be challenging. Only a handful of Irish “space travel” or “satellite” companies have attracted any venture capital funding so far, according to the Crunchbase database. “We’ve got a sector that’s growing, but it’s growing slowly because indigenous business doesn’t have the funding of California”, Fitzpatrick says.

The National Space 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 first report on progress against the strategy is due to be considered later this year by a cross-departmental Space Enterprise Coordination Group, which met for the first time in May.

So is Ireland really going to the moon, economically speaking? We are, after all, late to the party: countries with big defence industries, such as Russia and the US, had a head start.

But Trinity Business School’s Brennan reckons it’s still early days for the commercial space sector in the grand scheme of things -  and Ireland has form when it comes to picking winners. “We’ve been very good at targeting sectors early in their life cycle”, he points out. “If you’re part of a growing industry, the opportunities are so much greater, and all the forecasts are that space is going to grow quite significantly”.

What would really put rocket boosters under the industry would be the 21st century’s answer to the moon landing, Fitzpatrick says. “I guarantee you, when the first guy steps off a spaceship on to Mars, the whole planet is going to stop and watch. All the kids will be going into school in Martian outfits. It’s very close. And when that happens, you’re going to have an explosion of interest in everything to do with space”.

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:

CJ McKinney  / Legal Affairs Journalist

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