Cork well placed to be space business hub

Ellen O’Regan hears from the CEO of the National Space Centre on why the future is bright for the space industry in Cork
Cork well placed to be space business hub

Rory Fitzpatrick, CEO of the National Space Centre Ltd near Midleton, Co Cork. Picture: David Keane.

“I GUARANTEE this: When the first ship lands on Mars — and it looks like Elon Musk’s will be the first to get someone up there and it’ll happen fairly soon — once they do, the whole planet is going to go space mad.”

So says CEO of the National Space Centre based in Midleton, Rory Fitzpatrick.

As billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson compete in the modern-day space race, and commercial activity around space continues to gather momentum, Mr Fitzpatrick predicts that the people founding the next wave of start-ups will be looking to the stars.

“The first guy lands on Mars, everybody’s going to go space mad. Every cereal box will come with space toys, McDonald’s will be doing space stuff, every ad on TV will have a space twist, it will be exactly like it was in the 60s when the moon landing was going on… it’s going to be the same again, and with that you are going to have a massive boom in space related business,” he said.

As Ireland prepares to launch its first national satellite early next year, EIRSAT-1, the Government is eager to foster Ireland’s fledgling space sector, and capitalise on the global commercial space industry, estimated to grow to approximately US $1 trillion by 2040.

The number of Irish companies engaged with European Space Agency contracts across the country is still less than 100, but the sector has grown almost 40% in the last four years.

Mr Fitzpatrick highlights that Ireland, and Cork, are particularly well placed to become hubs of space related business activity.

“There is going to be an industry that grows and develops out of this, and Ireland is really well positioned… we have very highly qualified graduates, we’re part of Europe but we’re English speaking, we’re a really good bridge between the US and Europe, and I think those are the key things that make us a real sweet spot,” he said.

The Elfordstown Earthstation, where the National Space Centre now operates, was strategically based in Midleton in the 1980s because of particular advantages to the Cork location.

Originally built as a pan-European project to transmit telephone calls via satellite between Europe and the US, Ireland was the natural choice for the teleport, as the EU country that looked further west than anywhere else.

With better visibility to satellites in the south of the country, Cork was chosen for its particularly good infrastructure, and the natural dip in the landscape around Midleton proved quiet for radio noise.

Mr Fitzpatrick said that Cork is still to this day a good location for space-related industry, for all the reasons it was singled out in the 1980s, added to the fact that large corporations with a likely interest in evolving space tech, like Apple, are already based here.

Having taken over the Elfordstown Earthstation in 2010, the National Space Centre now uses the facility for both commercial broadcasting and teleport services to communicate with satellites, and commercial contracts for research and development.

Mr Fitzpatrick said the centre is currently in discussions with a number of commercial partners to fund the refurbishment of “The Big Dish” at the station, for communication to the moon and Mars.

 Rory Fitzpatrick, CEO of the National Space Centre Ltd near Midleton, Co Cork. Picture: David Keane.
Rory Fitzpatrick, CEO of the National Space Centre Ltd near Midleton, Co Cork. Picture: David Keane.

He said that the boost from commercial investment in Cork’s space sector fills the gap that State investment can’t meet.

“The difficulty for us is that the Irish Government’s budget for space is too small, so they can’t afford infrastructure projects… They couldn’t put money into us because we’d need all the Irish budget in one fell swoop, so our only option really is commercial business,” he said.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve brought some of the top space companies in the world into Ireland to operate stuff to satellite from Cork,” he added, noting that space companies such as theirs based in Cork have “exciting” opportunities in the commercial world.

Mr Fitzpatrick has seen a huge increase in interest in the space industry amongst young entrepreneurs, and said the National Space Centre hopes to host a special event in the new year to give them a head start.

“Coming out of lockdown, and everything else that’s gone on, you have a lot of young people who just want to get out and do stuff… there’s a massive amount of 20-something young people starting space companies, and they’re doing everything; space breathing apparatus, space suits, everything you can imagine they’re making up, they’re doing it,” he said.

“In the new year we’re going to hold a space start-up event for young people that are interested in starting up space companies. They can come down, they can ask us anything they want… we’ll tell them, warts and all, who to talk to, where to chase down money, and the actual logistics of how to start up a space company.”

Mr Fitzpatrick said it will likely be February or March when the space start-up event takes place, and for interested entrepreneurs to keep an eye out for details on the National Space Centre’s website.

“We’ve gone doing the long walk around, knocking on all the doors and everything else, and if we can short circuit younger people so they don’t have to waste as much time as we did knocking on doors that won’t open, then that’s a brilliant thing,” he said.

Cork ‘ticks a lot of boxes’ for small, growing space technology businesses

SPEAKING about the potential for Cork to develop as a leading hub for space technology, Kevin O’Neill, co-founder of Cork-based space sensor technology company PixQuanta, said that it “ticks a lot of boxes”.

“It ticks a lot of boxes for small businesses that are growing… Cork is a great place to set up a business like that because it’s very accessible internationally, it’s a great town, it’s very attractive for prospective employees to come with their families from outside of Ireland,” he said.

“I think particularly the ecosystem of the universities here means that you have a lot of synergy with high tech supports. PixQuanta for example has a really good relationship with the Tyndall Institute, and that allows us to do things much faster than if we were located elsewhere,” he added.

Talking about the potential for growth of businesses getting involved in space, Mr O’Neill said it has been exciting to see how their light sensor technology, originally designed to sense objects in space, can have applications in other areas.

“The big application for us is obviously space, we’ve been funded very generously by the European Space Agency now for a couple of years… [but] we’re speaking with business customers in the automotive sector, in the consumer sector, in the data communication sector. It’s really exciting to see how one core technology platform can have a significant disruptive effect in multiple different applications,” he said.

“It’s very easy to dismiss investments in space as boondoggles, as a waste of money. But I would emphasise, for every euro Ireland or the ESA invests, we get four euros back into the economy, creating jobs, creating products that will trickle down to the consumer level. It’s a no brainer,” he added.

Mr O’Neill said that businesses entering the space sector today benefit from a synergy between commercial income streams and funding from entities such as the European Space Agency.

“Space takes a very long view, because it’s a very long process to get to the reliability level of a technology that’s suitable for space.

“Consumer is very fast. If a consumer company like a phone manufacturer sees a space technology that they think is useful for their next-gen phone, they’ll want it yesterday,” he said.

“These different application spaces work in very different time scales. It’s great to have the support of something like the European Space Agency that takes the long view, but that also acknowledges that companies need to be diverse, they need to not only be ready to supply to the space industry, but also be positioned so they can supply to other industries like automotive and consumer,” he added.

UCC and MTU pushing out the new talent needed by space companies

RATHER than developing space technology to help explore the wider reaches of the universe, Cork-based Treemetrics is harnessing the power of satellite imaging to help learn more about our own planet.

Treemetrics co-founder Enda Keane explained how their company now uses “the three pillars of space”, satellite imagery, GPS navigation and satellite communication, to monitor and help manage forests around the world.

The company works with governments and private forest owners around the world, to monitor the health of forests and whether they’re being managed sustainably.

“We purchase satellite images off the European Space Agency and other space agencies. Our software then analyses the satellite image and detects any disturbance that’s happened over a period of time… if trees are being illegally cut we spot that, if the trees are being disturbed due to storms or fire or insect attack, our software will pick that up and explain it to the owner,” said Mr Keane.

“Our main customers now are forest owners who are managing their forests for carbon credits. Companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, they’re purchasing credits from the forest owners, in return for the forest owners to preserve the forest or manage the forest in a way that captures more carbon… tonnes of carbon are quantified by us and then the owner gets paid based on our calculations. We’re like an independent valuer, the auditor of the resource,” he added.

Mr Keane said that over the past 17 years since Treemetrics started, the quality and accessibility of satellite imagery and space technology has rapidly changed.

“Computer power is so much better. When we used to get a satellite image 17 years ago, it might take days to process, where now we can process in seconds. When we were purchasing satellite images 10 years ago, you had to buy 100 square kilometers minimum and it was costing us $5,000 (€4,700) . Now we can buy that same data for $10 (€9.50) or $20 (€18.80),” he said.

Mr Keane paid credit to the government’s support of the European Space Agency, which allows companies like Treemetrics to win funding contracts to explore new opportunities, and helps to further the continuous improvement of space tech.

He said that the constant drive to develop and avail of changing technologies means that space companies are constantly in need of new talent, something not short in supply in Cork, making it an ideal base.

“There’s constant innovation happening. Every so many months there’s a new satellite being launched, and those satellites are better at measuring the world… The great thing about space technology is that the R&D is non-stop, which means we have to keep evolving, we have to keep learning, we’re constantly in an R&D phase ourselves to take advantage of satellite technology,” he said.

“The colleges in fairness, MTU and UCC, are continuing to bring out the talent, so the talent is here. I think [the space sector] is going to keep evolving, there’s going to be a constant push for R&D, so we’re going to have to keep pushing out the talent out of the universities,” he added.

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