It may come as something of a surprise, but the space sector in Ireland is increasingly big business. While the country isn’t launching its own rocket to the moon just yet, the development of its first ever satellite, EIRSAT-1, shows just how giant a leap the Irish have taken into the industry. A growing number of companies here work within the sector, facilitated largely by Ireland’s membership of the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA is an inter-governmental agency comprising 22 member states, which seeks to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.
An increasing number of Irish companies have engaged in extremely specialised work as part of ESA contracts. Cortona 3D, for example, which is headquartered in Malahide, Co Dublin, produces visualisation and simulation software that was chosen by ESA for spacecraft crew and astronaut training for the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a fleet of 20 tonne space transport vehicles used to bring fresh food, clothes, water, fuel and oxygen to the International Space Station (ISS).
“Our project is aimed at improving the quality and performance of ISS crew operations and training,” says one member of the Cortona 3D team. “Training and mission operations are of crucial importance to the International Space Station and other similar sophisticated programmes.”
The type of work carried out by Cortona 3D is critical to the space sector, but the company is not bound entirely to it. The benefits of the company’s visualisation and simulation software extend across a large variety of industries, including automotive, manufacturing, consumer electronics, aerospace, high-tech, defence and medical.
This is an important feature of many of the technologies produced by companies working within the industry, as the ability to bring space technologies back down to earth is often essential in ensuring the continued viability of the company producing them. Dr Frank Smyth, CEO and founder of Pilot Photonics, knows as much.
“One of the things that ESA insists on is that the technology produced can also be applied to more regular, earth terrestrial markets,” he says. “Otherwise, what happens is you have this technology that’s only suitable for space, but the space market is too small to support it and the company goes bust, because it didn’t have a sustainable market on the ground. So when you put proposals together [for ESA] there has to be a terrestrial business case for it as well.
”Dr Smyth’s company, Pilot Photonics, is a spin-out company of DCU, founded in 2011, which offers a unique technology applicable to many markets, including communication, spectroscopy, sensing, and metrology. The company is a new entrant into the space market and currently has one ESA contract underway.
“Our product is, at its core, essentially a laser, so it can be applied to anywhere where lasers are used,” Dr Smyth explains. “We’re applying it to optical communications and fibre optics, we’re applying it to optical sensing, we’re applying it to data centre networking – for every space application there’s an analogous ground application that we’re applying the technology to.”
The whole version of the article is published in InBusiness Magazine, Q3 2017, p. 26-28