Tapping into the potential of New Space

Ireland’s first ever ‘Space Region’ has been established as academics in CIT and WIT join forces to create the Society, Economy and Environment (SEE) Space network, to forge links with the European Space Agency, writes Dr Niall Smith
Tapping into the potential of New Space

Dr Niall Smith, Head of Research  in the Cork Institute of Technology and the Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork.

FROM rockets to astronauts, the exploration of space has appeared to be the preserve of an elite group of well-healed countries, with a seeming interest more about promoting their global dominance than helping the likes of you or me.

We all know the name NASA. Many of us may know the name ESA (European Space Agency). Yet other than putting men on the Moon and people into space, we probably know relatively little about them.

I think this is a pity, because they have been critical in bringing technologies such as GPS navigation, and services such as weather forecasting into our daily lives. Over the past 60 years they have made space relevant to us all, even when we didn’t know it. But I believe this is nothing as compared to what we might expect in the next five, let alone 50 years.

Space is no longer the domain of the mega-players. It is becoming easier and cheaper to access space, and with access comes endless possibilities and exciting innovations. This revolution, not evolution, is referred to as New Space. It includes small countries and often small companies who see new opportunities to use space for societal, economic and environmental benefit. The value of New Space is estimated to be in the region of €2 trillion by 2030. This staggering figure refers not so much to the people who make the rockets or the satellites, but those who know how to take advantage of them. And that’s where it gets exciting.

New Space is the catalyst for two of Ireland’s highest performing research organisations to pool their talent. CIT and WIT have a combined student cohort of 22,000, a research budget of almost €40m per annum and over 400 PhD students, and with 100 startup companies incubating in their two campuses. It makes sense that they should join forces in the first steps to build Ireland’s Space Coast.

The Presidents of CIT and WIT signed a Memorandum of Understanding on October 29, 2020 to formalise the collaboration and publicly recognise the potential of New Space to the region.

The title chosen for the partnership is very deliberate – the Society, Economy and Environment (SEE) Space Network. It recognises the vision of the two institutions to use space to help build an equitable society with secure employment whilst protecting the environment for us all. Key to this is the recognition that SEE-Space takes advantage of already-existing expertise within CIT and WIT, but now refocuses elements of that to include space. Developments at undergraduate level will bring greater visibility to students as to how their own education can be used in the space domain.

Big Bertha at Blackrock Castle Observatory
Big Bertha at Blackrock Castle Observatory

Research centres in the two institutions, already with international track records in photonics, quantum communications, cybersecurity, smart agri-tech, advanced manufacturing and internet-of- things are well placed to succeed. And with the CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory playing a prominent role in space policy development, and Ireland’s only commercial space teleport facility at the National Space Centre near Midleton, there are considerable strengths at the network’s disposal.

I think a couple of examples can illustrate the point.

Agriculture is a very substantial employer in the south and south-west. It depends in part on the optimum use of land within tight regulatory/environmental frameworks. SEE-Space researchers will help to provide timely information to farmers and other stakeholders based upon images from satellites orbiting around 700km above our heads. This will assist with what is sometimes referred to as “smart agriculture”. Similar data can be used to help farmers in regions of the world where conditions are much less favourable, but this also means the market for any products developed by SEE-Space researchers, or the companies they work with, has a global marketplace. The optimum use of land will aid with building sustainable communities and protecting the environment. In turn this will help alleviate poverty and hunger and address a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Another example is the area of cybersecurity. While most of our data travels through fibre optic or copper cables at present, in the near future large volumes will be carried via networks of low-earth-orbiting satellites. These have several advantages, including the ability to transfer data faster than is currently possible. High-speed data transmission will be very attractive for the likes of the financial services sector, something which is of particular interest in this region. With high-value information being distributed faster than ever before, the need for the highest quality cybersecurity will be paramount to protect it from hacking by cybercriminals. Already, SEE-Space researchers are working with local companies to plan for more resilient satellite networks. Furthermore, as more high-speed broadband becomes available from space-based networks the need to protect large numbers of customers will be an opportunity for existing expertise with ground-based network security to be pivoted into the space domain.

As CIT is integrated into the Munster Technological University in January 2021 with IT Tralee and WIT into the Technological University of the South-East with IT Carlow (likely in 2022), the SEE-Space network will naturally reach into more counties with more capacity for societal, economic and environmental benefit. Within the overall context of the National Space Strategy for Enterprise, in which CIT’s Blackrock Castle Observatory played a significant role, the establishment of SEE-Space comes at the right time as Ireland looks skywards for solutions to challenges all around us. I can’t imagine a more exciting time to get involved.


Dr Smith is Head of CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory. He studied astrophysics at University College Dublin and graduated with his PhD in 1990. He lectured in the Department of Applied Physics & Instrumentation in Cork Institute of Technology for 18 years before becoming the Institute’s first Head of Research in 2005, now providing strategic oversight of a budget of €14m per annum across disciplines from science and engineering to arts and music.

Niall is the Founder-Director of the internationally award-winning Blackrock Castle Observatory which has just celebrated its 13th anniversary and over 1.2 million visitors.

In 2017, Niall was the host Director for the International Space University Space Studies Programme which is the largest conference programme ever to come to Cork, lasting a total of nine weeks and involving over 320 global space experts. N

iall’s research focuses on space topics including ultra-high precision photometry and the uses of small satellites in low earth orbit for a wide range of functions from high resolution imaging to space cybersecurity to rural broadband.

He was the Higher Education representative on the National Steering Group for the Irish Government’s recently published Space Strategy for Enterprise and considers Space 4.0 to be a significant opportunity for the Irish business community.

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