Last year, as Elon Musk's SpaceX soared through the Earth's orbit and into space, an Irish company's technology was ready and waiting to play a mission-critical role. Dublin-based Skytek's IPV Tablet system was used to provide advanced astronaut support on the International Space Station (ISS). With the system, astronauts had access to more than 14,000 operational procedures, which support all operational activities on board.
When the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the station, the astronauts on board could use IPV procedures to support the safe operation of the capsule with onboard systems.
"It's always exciting," said Sarah Bourke, chief executive of Skytek, regarding the company's technology playing a role in such space missions.
"For so many years, the Americans could not launch. Everyone was dependent on the Russians. For the Americans to launch their own shuttles was a huge thing for the space industry.
"You now have Boeing coming on stream, so you'll have two commercial carriers. There is vast money going into it, and it's not just shuttles, it's satellites as well. The industry is changing."
With commercial sales by companies in Ireland directly resulting from ESA support expected to expand from over €75m in 2015 to €133m by 2020 and with space-linked employment also set to double to over 4,500, many believe Ireland's space sector could be on the cusp of taking off.
In 2019, the Irish Government launched its first National Space Strategy into orbit, with lofty ambitions to support 100 companies through ESA by 2025.
Companies contracted with ESA receive a level of validation which helps to make products more available to the broader space sector.
Spanning between now and 2025, the Government said the plan would provide strategic support to Ireland's space sector, both in industry and research. Between 2009 and 2019, Ireland's ESA commitment grew from €14.8m to €18.3m per annum.
The strategy counts six ambitious targets, including doubling space-related revenue and employment in Irish space companies and doubling the value of contracts won through the EU Horizon programmes.
The space industry received a further boost in December, when UCD launched a dedicated space research centre, C-Space, to help more SMEs go to infinity and beyond.
There is still much to do to achieve the full potential of the space industry in Ireland, however.
Bourke is keen to point out that if the industry here is to live long and prosper, it will need more investment than it currently receives.
"This is a huge growth area," she said. "But it needs more investment - significantly more. The budgets that other countries have are vast. If you want to be able to compete, then you need to be able to compete effectively."
As more commercial operators, such as Boeing, Virgin and SpaceX, join the space race with the publicly-backed industry players like the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, Irish companies are finding innovative ways of tapping into the high-value space industry.
Playing a crucial role in launching more Irish companies into the stratosphere is Tony McDonald, programme manager of the space industry at Enterprise Ireland.
He said the number of Irish companies in contract with ESA had doubled in the past five years, with 80 companies involved as of this year.
According to McDonald, behind the boom in Irish companies entering the space industry are startups adapting their products to the sector.
"In the past few years we have seen a surge in companies engaging with ESA," he said.
"Engaging with ESA forms a commercial market opportunity. ESA is the route to market, and the enabler to help companies to qualify technologies for commercial space applications. It is the only way for Irish companies to qualify technologies, as we don't have a space agency.
"What is really interesting is that these are companies that you wouldn't expect to be involved in space.
"The difference between Ireland and other countries is we don't have a traditional space sector. But what we do have is a growing number of very innovative companies who are developing technologies that are finding their way into space applications."
McDonald said companies from sectors such as transportation, environmental monitoring and even healthcare are adapting their products or services to either enter the space industry or take advantage of it.
He said these companies are either involved in the upstream side of the space sector, where the tech goes into space, and others in the downstream side where they use the space technology.
"We believe [the Irish space industry] is going to be important in two respects," he said.
"The space market is transforming quite dramatically. In the 60s, 70s and 80s it was very institutional programmes, but now you see more commercial... That is helping a growing number of startups [across the world] who can take very low-cost solutions and develop them for space.
"The whole dynamic is changing. It used to be expensive... That growing number of new players opens up opportunities for Irish companies.
"The other area is, in the past, if you were developing technology for space, it would have to be really special. It is now moving toward more straight off the shelf. Not only that, but these [space tech] technologies can be used in other sectors, like automotive or even healthcare."
McDonald said many great Irish companies had found a niche in the space sector. As well as Skytek, he points to innovative examples such as Innalabs, Ubotica, Robotify, Woodco, Icon Group, Verifish, OCE, PMD Solutions and Realtra.
In November, Robotify, a virtual robotics platform founded by two former DCU students, won a contract with the European Space Agency worth more than €450,000.
"I'm very optimistic after this year," said McDonald. "The growth is very strong, the level of interest is very strong, and the business case behind investing and engaging in space is stronger now than it ever was."
One company which showed ability to transition its product into the space industry is Lios Group, an acoustic materials company formerly known as Restored Hearing.
Co-founder Rhona Togher said insight from its tinnitus therapy customers led to the development of SoundBounce, a smart acoustic material for use in the automotive, aerospace, construction, and home appliances sectors.
SoundBounce could help protect people and structures from loud low-frequency sound.
Lios conducted pilot projects with customers in these industries before being approached by two major European space companies to help solve the problem of noise and vibration damaging launcher payloads with SoundBounce.
These relationships led to its involvement in the 12-month Future Launchers Preparatory Programme with ESA.
"The space industry is a great opportunity for Lios," said Togher. "There is a lot of overlap between technology for use in space and those which can be used elsewhere like in cars or planes.
"The rigorous requirements of the space sector, such as being able to operate in extreme temperatures or high vibration environments, put new technology through its paces.
"As part of our engagement with space sector customers and ESA, we have planned future development work to build on the anticipated success of this initial phase one project. We look forward to working with ESA and our space partners to build SoundBounce into next-generation launch vehicles."
While Lios's technology is set to help protect vehicles launching into space, other Irish companies are utilising space technology for services not just on land, but also at sea.
Verifish, a Cork-based technology company that uses blockchain technology to track and trace fishing catches, started using space technology to bolster its services.
Founded by former commercial fisherman Frank Fleming, Verifish secured €300,000 from ESA about five years ago.
Fleming was introduced to the world of space technology by a friend who told him of his success in developing software under contract to ESA.
The entrepreneur subsequently looked at how this could apply to the seafood sector.
"In 2014, the first project was focused on using space assets to collect sustainability and food safety information from vessels while they were at sea, often long distances from the shore, in real-time," Fleming said.
"This was a pivotal project for us as it was an introduction to the world of software. We learned how the quality of data could be improved (compared to paper-based systems), how applications are scalable and how new datasets could help customers in innovative ways."
Fleming said the use of space assets to support applications across multiple sectors is a huge growth area.
Verifish has expanded internationally and is set to undertake a project in the agriculture sector during 2021, which will also be under contract to ESA.
"Capturing accurate data in real-time has benefits in terms of food safety, sustainability and improving business processes," he said. "There will be many opportunities in this area in the coming years, and we are well-positioned to capitalise on these.
"The number of Irish companies working with Enterprise Ireland and ESA has grown substantially over the last number of years. There are great opportunities in the area and a wide range of benefits in winning contracts from ESA.
"Working with the Space Agency pushes early-stage companies, such as ours, to work in a very structured way which brings long-term benefits.
"There are many opportunities in the space area for Irish companies, and I believe we will see many success stories emerging in the coming years supporting strong job creation in the sector," he added.
While seafood and space may not be easily linked, other Irish companies have a natural fit in the space industry and are thriving as a result.
Innalabs, a Dublin-based designer and manufacturer of inertial sensors for navigation systems, has had great success with commercial and publicly-backed space operators.
The company has attracted interest from the space sector since early 2014.
One of Innalabs' first success stories was on a US programme linked to Google for commercial high-resolution coloured imaging of Earth.
More recently, Innalabs was announced as part of an ESA mission that will be humankind's first probe to rendezvous with a binary asteroid system named Didymos.
According to Innalabs CEO John O'Leary, the mission's main objective is to develop planetary defence technologies to protect humanity against extinction, such as the one that wiped off the dinosaurs from Earth about 66 million years ago.
While O'Leary acknowledges that the space sector on its own isn't yet as valuable commercially, it has allowed him to improve his products and enter larger markets such as aerospace, rail and energy.
The company's success in the space industry has provided it with great credibility.
"The confidence that customers have now in our products as we become a space supplier has increased tremendously since the logic is 'if it's good enough for space, then it's good enough for me'," he said.
"We need to build on our successes," he added.
"As we are a nation with a strong industrial background, hard-working, highly innovative, educated, and resourceful in all problem solving, [these] are all ideal attributes for a growing space sector.
"It's my belief that Ireland has all the credentials to capture a slice of this new space business."
For Bourke's Skytek, which was also co-founded by Paul Kiernan, the company's chief technical officer, business is continuing to soar - just like the shuttles its technology helps to dock at the International Space Station safely.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic it has been working on another commercial launch, believed to be with SpaceX, which is set to take place over the next year.
With Skytek being founded around 15 years ago, Bourke, like many others, believes that other Irish companies looking to serve the space industry could be about to tap into a real growth area and opportunity.
Skytek as a business has never been one to rest on its laurels. It is always innovating.
The company has a research partnership with insurance giant Aon, which it announced in 2019. The partnership will use advanced data analysis techniques and space technology to monitor marine, port and offshore assets to help insurers gain insight into risk accumulation.
With commercial opportunities growing, Bourke accepts there will be challenges for those entering. Still, it's up to firms to develop technologies and gain the experience, while it's for others to increase their investments to help the sector lift off.
"As an Irish company, the only reason we are still there is that we are really good at what we do," she said. "It's a difficult enough industry to get started in, but we have been around."
Sunday Indo Business