Space Set for Liftoff

Studying science or engineering at college, and worried about job prospects in Ireland when you graduate? If so, then you could certainly do worse than consider a career in Ireland’s rapidly growing and exciting space industry sector, writes Seán Duke.

Ireland has a proud astronomical history that dates back millennia. The first Irish people to develop an intimate interest and knowledge of the stars were, most probably, the people that built Newgrange 5,500 years ago.

Their economy was based on domestication of livestock and planting of crops, activities that required good knowledge of the seasons, and the natural cycle. Astronomy could help with this. Newgrange is the world’s oldest ‘astronomically aligned’ building, predating the pyramids by 500 years, so the Irish can claim to be the world’s first astronomers.

Irish monks were famous for their astronomical knowledge and observations, recording super nova explosions in the 12th century. Later, in the 19th century, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, at Birr Castle, built what became the world’s largest telescope for the next 50 years.

Space ShuttleThen in the early 1970s scientists at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies worked with NASA on the manned Apollo 16 and 17 missions to the Moon.

So, Irish involvement in space did not begin the day in 1975 when Ireland joined the European Space Agency (ESA). But joining was crucial as it demonstrated that Ireland now had a long-term commitment to participate in collaborative European space programmes.

This encouraged Irish industry and research groups here to get involved in space, and led to the development of a home-grown space sector.

Growth

The past 10 years has seen a rapid rise in the number of Irish companies securing ESA contracts. From 2005 to 2009, 47 Irish companies secured ESA contracts to the value of €31 million.

Furthermore, 19 of those 47 companies were first-time space contractors in that four-year period, and spread across many sectors including ICT, materials, software, engineering, electronics and optoelectronics.

Unlike many other parts of the Irish economy, the immediate future for the space industry here looks bright, with over €9 million worth of new contracts placed in 2009 – a dire year in the wider economy, and an increase of €1 million per annum since 2006. This progress is expected to increase further in coming years as the number and size of Irish companies active in the space market is expected to expand.

Aside from the direct funds from ESA contracts there are spin-off benefits for Irish companies working with ESA, as space technology can be exploited by them here on Earth.

In 2007, Enterprise Ireland, the state body responsible for the space sector here, estimated that the Irish companies that have contracts with ESA generated a turnover of €136 million, and provided employment for 1,000 people. The caveat here is that not all the economic activity by these companies, or the jobs, is directly related to space. The people working in space here are mostly engineers or scientists with PhDs.

Ireland’s space future is bright, according to Tony McDonald, ESA Programme Manager with Enterprise Ireland, the state agency responsible for the space sector.

“We are seeing significant growth in the past year in the Irish companies active in ESA programmes, with a number of companies expanding their employment of engineering staff in particular. We expect this growth to continue as Irish companies continue to expand their involvement with ESA, and increase sales to commercial space markets in Europe, US and Asia.

Earth's moon“We are also seeing an expanding range of Irish companies and research groups becoming active in ESA programmes, including in the development of leading-edge technologies for biomedical applications for human spaceflight.”

The range of space research in Ireland has certainly expanded beyond the ‘traditional’ space areas of astronomy and astrophysics into life sciences, microgravity studies, climate studies, and the application of nanotechnology in space, for example.

Supports

The Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) and ESA is now co-funding post-doctoral research that relates to space with the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, and NUI Galway (Mace Head).

Meanwhile, EI is supporting third-level students that wish to participate in internships at ESA’s research headquarters in Holland, and its astronomy centre outside Madrid. EI is also offering scholarships to enable students to attend the Summer School Alpbach and the International Space University.

Article by Seán Duke, courtesy of Science Spin Magazine

Some Irish companies in space:

  • Ampac ISP Europe, Thrusters, valves and regulators
  • Eirecomposites, Advanced composites for space launchers and satellites
  • Eblana Photonics, Advanced laser systems for satellite navigation payloads
  • SensL, Detectors for planetary landers
  • Skytec, Advanced software for use by humans involved in space mission