Ireland to take giant leap into space in 2016

Artist's view of the Rosetta mission's comet lander Philae. Prof McKenna-Lawlor, who worked on Rosetta is behind a project which will design, manufacture and launch Ireland's first spacecraft.

Ireland is to launch its first space mission which will be developed by Maynooth-based company, Space Technology Ireland (STIL).

 

STIL has previously manufactured experiments and subsystems for space missions for five major space agencies - including ESA’s Rosetta craft which landed a probe on a comet last year.

The project will be managed by the director of Space Technology Ireland, Professor Susan McKenna-Lawlor who plans to involve Irish engineering students in the construction of the spacecraft.

“I am hoping to set up a competition for bachelor of engineering students (both girls and boys) so they can have hands-on experience of building something that will survive in space. There are very significant jobs coming up shortly in the space industry and I want engineers here in Ireland to be ready for that,” she said.

The mission will be mounted with the help of undisclosed financial donors and will be launched from a rocket into space, probably from Russia, at the end of next year.

Involvement in the project will not be confined to students of engineering, says Professor McKenna-Lawlor. There will also be an opportunity for the public and schoolchildren to see the data as it is being transmitted and to have explanations of what it means.

“Space is for everybody and I think the public will enjoy the project enormously,” says Prof McKenna Lawlor who also wants to involve arts students. “Opportunities will be created to involve music, poetry and literature with the spacecraft. We have already commissioned a small piece of sculpture to be carried on board and this is a special construction since it has to be made of space-qualified materials.”

One of the main objectives is to study space weather which has a profound effect on human society. “The spacecraft is the least exciting part of the project in some ways,” she says.

During disturbed space weather conditions due to activity on the sun, power blackouts can take place and global positioning and satellite communication systems experience difficulties. In some cases airplanes are sent to fly at lower altitudes to avoid dangerous radiation while astronauts aboard the international space station take refuge in an onboard bio-well.

In order to monitor different aspects of space weather disturbances, experiments not only from Ireland but from other countries as well will be flown. Negotiations are in progress with space agencies and institutes in counties that include Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, Slovakia and the UK who have expressed interest in flying experiments on the Irish mission.

Space Technology Ireland has already manufactured experiments and technical subsystems for many space missions, including ESA’s Rosetta which landed a probe on a comet last year.

Prof McKenna-Lawlor’s company built the Electrical Support System (ESS) which handled communications between the Rosetta Orbiter and its Lander Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenkp. The ESS was defined to be Mission Critical Hardware since the retrieval of precious data from the lander depended on its flawless operation.

An emeritus professor at the Maynooth University Department of Experimental Physics, Prof McKenna- Lawlor has participated in flagship experiments flown on ESA, Nasa, Chinese, Indian and Russian space agency missions and her work earned her one of the most prestigious honours available to space scientists - election to the International Academy of Astronautics.

While acknowledging that all her space work has been exciting, including missions to Halley’s comet, Mercury, Mars, Venus and Jupiter, she noted that “one from home is very close to my heart”.


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