In a month where much of the nation’s attention has focused on election politics and the arrival of winter storms, raising our gaze heavenwards provides a far more enticing prospect.
When the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral last week on a mission to the sun, it offered a vision of the future — and an emerging industry in which Ireland is destined to play a crucial role.
Our membership of the ESA, funded through the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, has enabled Irish industry and research institutes to participate in the development of technologies for missions such as Solar Orbiter.
Dublin-based company Enbio is supplying the mission-critical thermal ‘Solar Black’ coating technology which will protect the spacecraft from the sun’s 500 degree celsius radiation.
Just 0.05 mm thick, the width of a human hair, and made from light titanium alloy, this “satellite sunscreen” will play a key role in the overall success of the mission.
Technology by another Irish company, Captec, is providing independent verification of the on-board software that will guide and control the spacecraft when in flight. In addition, Trinity College Dublin and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies received ESA funding to support the development of imaging software for the Stix instrument, one of 10 science instruments onboard.
Twenty years since its inception, and six years of construction, the Solar Orbiter is ready to study the sun up close. It will join with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is already engaged in its mission.
Indeed, Ireland’s role in the study of outer space cosmos goes back much further than the extended preparation for this mission. When the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, visited Ireland in 1976, he expressed an interest in visiting Newgrange, the neolithic structure dating to 3,200BC possibly used by the Celts in their study of lunar and solar cycles.
Mr Armstrong noted the expertise of the ancients around the cosmological activity of the sun, moon and stars, and which was subsequently studied by Greek mathematicians Hippolytus and Pythagoras.
The first ever Irish National Space Strategy envisages our membership of the ESA, which dates back to 1975, enabling Irish companies tender for projects in this burgeoning sector. The strategy sets out a number of goals to achieve by 2025, including the doubling of revenue and employment in space-active Irish companies.
It also envisages supporting 100 companies to benefit from ESA engagement; doubling the value of contracts won through the EU Horizon programmes in space-related activities; and the development of a sustainable Earth Observation services sector based on advanced data analytics capability.
The delivery of these goals is underpinned by a target to increase Ireland’s overall public and private investment through ESA by 50% to an annual level of €32m by 2025. Commercial sales by Irish companies directly resulting from ESA support expanded from €43m in 2013 to more than €75m in 2015, and is projected to grow to €133m by 2020.
Companies involved in ESA contracts had a combined turnover of €274m in 2013, a figure that is projected to increase to more than €500m by the end of this year.
The international space sector is currently undergoing a rapid transformation due in large part to an increasing demand for services catering to the emergence of ‘Space 4.0’ — an evolution into an era characterised by increased private sector investment and interaction between governments and industry.
Space 4.0 will drive contemporary technologies in automation and miniaturisation with advanced manufacturing and big data, stimulating the interaction of different sectors and enabling increased levels of technology exchange between space and non-space domains.
Space technologies are already well integrated into our daily lives — most notably in the areas of location services, satellite-based media services and weather forecasting.
A telling example of the technology was demonstrated by the instant information provided to emergency services during the recent Australian bushfires, which derived from real-time satellite images and navigation services.
The industry has also deeply impacted on advances in medicine, communications, energy, marine and environmental protection. The National Space Strategy notes that, as new opportunities emerge,Ireland will continue to support commercial opportunities in both the upstream and downstream space sectors.
One of those key opportunities has recently emerged on foot of a 2017 agreement between Enterprise Ireland and the ESA, allowing access to an unprecedented volume of data concerning planet Earth and its environment harvested by the EU’s Copernicus programme.
It has estimated that Copernicus could generate a financial benefit of up to €30bn, in addition to more than 50,000 new jobs, by 2030.
Ireland is ideally positioned, given our strong heritage in ICT, to seize this opportunity around the increasingly important areas of climate change, mitigation and food security.