Irish space sector sees stellar growth
Ireland has become a major hub in the lucrative and expanding field of astro-aeronautics, says Tom Prendeville
WITH demand at home flat-lining, many of the country's manufacturers are being forced to aggressively export their products in order to stay in business.
Meanwhile, half of the under-30s are thinking of going abroad to Canada or Australia in order to find work. However, the future for many could be in space.
Quietly and without much fuss, Ireland has become a major astro-aeronautical hub in its own right. Every year five new hi-tech companies are being set up here in Ireland, developing everything from radiation-proof materials to plastics with a memory – exotic Star Trek technologies that have multiple uses and can be turned into successful consumer products back here on Earth.
To date, 80 native companies have secured over €80m worth of lucrative contracts from the European Space Agency (ESA) – an incredible number, considering the size of the country.
Now, thanks to the proliferation of cheap commercial rockets that can deliver objects into space for a fraction of the cost of traditional operators such as Nasa, the new astro-aeronautical industry is set for enormous expansion and is crying out for skilled people.
Franco Ongaro, head of the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Holland, takes up the story.
"Irish companies have distinguished themselves, in particular in the fields of electronics, software, and propulsion," he says.
"Space has been growing for the past 20 years even in the face of economic difficulties, and I think in general the more we do in space activities, the more opportunities there will be.
"One of the advantages of working in space technology is that because of the very specific constraints of space, you are obliged to think outside of the box, thereby coming up with solutions that you wouldn't have found by looking at conventional problems."
He adds, "Overall, I think the future looks bright for Irish companies."
Cork-based SensL is typical of the new breed of Irish companies reaching for the stars, and has developed a technology that enables spacecraft to make a perfectly smooth landing on hostile alien surfaces full of craters and rocks.
The company, which was founded in 2004, developed a detection and ranging system – called LiDAR – which initially sparked the interest of the ESA.
The LiDAR system –which stands for 'light detection and ranging' – can also be used in future Moon and Martian missions to accurately map the surface that a spacecraft is going to land on.
"It's about keeping the landers from bumping into rocks. The ESA wanted our imaging LiDAR technology and wanted to make it available to anyone who won the contract to establish a system based on it," explains the company's co-founder, Carl Jackson.
Jackson was always keen to get involved in the space industry. "I would have seen that there were applications for our technology in space, and I would have naturally started to look at it," he says.
The company is also involved in satellite-to-satellite communication systems, and is currently developing sensors for detecting radiation clouds in space.
Working on space projects is not only prestigious for the company involved; the technology can also be commercially exploited here on Earth.
"It's actually beneficial for us because a lot of our customers are developing sensors that go into nuclear reactors or medical equipment that have high exposure to radiation sources," adds Jackson.
"It gives customers a lot of confidence when they know that our technology has gone up and been flight tested."
To this end, Jackson cites a gamma-ray spectroscopy that SensL has developed through the ESA, which has been refined to sell on to medical device imaging customers. The company is also working on commercial applications for the technology.
According to Tony McDonald, of the International Technology Programme at Enterprise Ireland, the big pay-off in space research comes in the form of consumer products.
"A lot of the companies are developing cutting-edge technologies that have real-world applications with spin-offs into mainstream markets," McDonald says.
"At any given time 40 Irish companies are involved in the ESA, and some would also work for Nasa and the commercial space market.
"We are seeing a huge growth in the commercial space sector, and all of these Irish firms are expanding."