Earthstation puts Midleton on space map

Despite having to deal with splatter attacks by crows, a facility in Co Cork is at the centre of Irish satellite technology, writes Claire Droney.

A STAR TREK mug sits in the windowsill of the office. On the desk is an old-fashioned green Bakelite telephone, and a model of the rocket that Chris Hadfield took on his space mission earlier this year. A glass cabinet contains a host of space paraphernalia, including a Russian Space Agency logo medal, a pair of astronaut’s underpants, and a limited edition replica of the watch Yuri Gagarin wore in space.

Outside, two men hose down a 32m-wide antenna, as another tries to remove the crow excrement and nests from the concave dome.

“We get a splatter attack every autumn when the blackberries are out. Crows fly over and splatter purple all over the dishes,” says National Space Centre (NSC) press officer Linda Fitzpatrick. The independently-run facility near Midleton, Co Cork, has plans to buy a hawk and hawk sound transmitter to deter the birds.

Initially established by Eutelsat in 1984 to carry transatlantic telephone traffic, the Cork Earthstation (the collective name for a number of antennae and internal servers which collect information from satellites in space) became obsolete after the Pipex telecommunications cable was laid under the Atlantic Ocean. When entrepreneur Rory Fitzpatrick, former CEO of satellite communications company MediaSat, saw the opportunity to lease it in 2010, he seized it with both hands.

“We were interested in space and broadband. The place was in an appalling state initially. We spent the first two years fixing the roofs and satellites, and now in the third year, we’re winning contracts,” says Fitzpatrick.

“Midleton is an ideal location because of the aspect of the hill. It’s in an elevated position which takes it out of the clutter of the city and the dip provides shelter without any shade that would give radiowave interference. We get a very good signal and clear connections up into space, and we’re not in a flight path.”

One of only eight Earthstations in Europe, the NSC has a number of functions. These include providing satellite internet and television for eastern European countries, as well as environmental, maritime and space-safety related information gathering for a number of international companies.

“All we’re doing is beaming stuff up and down. It’s simple but it’s complicated,” says Fitzpatrick, who currently employs 12 staff, and hopes to increase this to 65 within the next five years.

“We’re one of the few teleports in Europe that’s not owned by a government or a large telecommunications company. This allows us to offer companies a very individual service because we have no alliance to a particular company and we’re not controlled by a government,” he says.

However, it’s the space-related research and development that really excites Fitzpatrick. “The aspirational stuff is to do space exploration with companies, and to get involved in missions — that’s the boyhood dream. There’s a real buzz out there right now.

“It’s all moving to space now. Over the next 10 years, people will start living on Mars. Every lunatic and his dog will be building up there.”

Having previously worked in publishing and construction, Fitzpatrick considers this to be his most interesting job to date.

“It’s not every day you get to have dinner with Buzz Aldrin,” says Fitzpatrick, who discussed the 1969 moon landing with the American astronaut at a recent conference.

Last year, Fitzpatrick was in Kazakhstan to watch the launch of Chris Hadfield’s Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Centre. “It was a huge deal to be invited over. We were one kilometre away from the launch pad and the one thing that struck me was the noise. We could feel the heat from over there,” says Fitzpatrick. He had to buy a furry Russian hat to prevent frostbite, and celebrated the success of the launch in a bar with Hadfield’s euphoric family.

Future NSC plans include tracking space debris (nuts, bolts and spanners that are floating around in a space junkyard), and working with Mae Jemison’s100 Year Starship project on delivering free internet connections to African villages via satellite.

From today, the NSC hosts C-SIGMA IV, a global maritime security conference, which will look at how satellite tracking can improve safety and security at sea.

“Ireland has a key role to play in global maritime safety and surveillance, mainly due to our ideal position on the edge of the North Atlantic. We’re Europe’s most westerly teleport which means we can get the best possible view over the North Atlantic.

“This becomes increasingly important as the shipping routes look likely to change because the Arctic is melting. Now ships will go from the Far East to Europe, which is 40% quicker than going around the Suez Canal or Africa,” says Fitzpatrick.

“In Ireland, our big concern would be tracking drug ships, fishing infringements and helping distressed vessels at sea. The whole point of the conference is to open up a dialogue between the companies who put satellites up, the companies who interpret the data and the people who use it, like the coastguard, the navy and the guards.”

C-SIGMA IV takes place in Fota Island Resort Hotel and National Space Centre today and tomorrow


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