On April 2, the Falcon 9 rocket was launched by Space X from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Unlike the rocket launches of the 1960s, few people even registered the event and even fewer knew that Poland was involved in manufacturing its components. Poland’s space exploits are not something you read about every day. But just as space is vast, so is the potential for development, and Poland, among other European countries, is ready to take advantage of that
By Beata Socha
You wouldn’t readily associate the space industry with Poland. Automotive, heavy machinery, electronics, even aviation – sure, but space technologies have long been thought to be out of Poland’s reach. That may no longer be the case, though. The Polish Space Agency was established as a national body closely cooperating with the European Space Agency. As a member of the ESA, Poland pays a contribution fee, and in return receives a lot of support, both financial and as knowledge transfer from the European agency.
The ESA is not an EU agency, as some may think, but it does work together with the European Commission in many ways. It was the ESA that coined the term Space 4.0, a stage in the global space industry development that we are presumably living in right now. What the term signifies is, unsurprisingly, that there have already been three previous stages in space exploration history and now another phase is starting. Space 1.0 refers to the studying of astronomical objects, going back as far as the first civilizations and the ancient study of astronomy, later aided by the construction of telescopes.
Space 2.0 signifies the 1950s-1980s space race between the US and the USSR that resulted in the first man landing on the Moon. The space race played a big role in ending the Cold War, both through public perception and sentiment as well as through purely economic factors: it was an enormous financial cash drain and the US was clearly better equipped to handle that burden than a socialist economy.
Once the Cold War ended, the space race slowed down significantly. Instead, a new initiative of joint international space missions was born which led to the construction of the International Space Station, whose first module was launched into orbit in 1998. This stage has been dubbed Space 3.0 and precedes the era of space exploration that we are living in now. Space 4.0 stands for global involvement in space exploration, with access to space becoming cheaper, easier and increasingly egalitarian. It is no longer the domain of a few privileged countries, but a level playing field, where even those new to the game, like Poland, can find a place at the table.
A group effort
And there are very good reasons why they should get in on the game. “In 2014, when Elżbieta Bieńkowska was appointed as a European commissioner, it was said that every €1 invested in space would bring €8 in return. Now we are talking about €15 for every €1 put in,” said Tomasz Husak, Head of Cabinet of the European Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, during the 2017 EFNI conference in Sopot.
The European Union prepared its own space strategy that involves all EU countries willing to participate and is more ambitious than any national program could be individually. “No European country could have a proper space policy. Yes, Germany and France have their individual undertakings, but a proper space policy can only be achieved for the EU as a whole,” stated Husak and added that out of all EU policies, the space program enjoys the most support from individual EU countries.
“If a drone was sent to track a terrorist moving from France to, say, Poland, it would currently drop at the French-German border, as there is no direct communication between the systems that individual countries use.”
One could ask, how the EU, or any European country for that matter, could become a real player in an industry that took the US and Russia decades to develop and which took China billions of dollars to acquire the know-how and improve it – as the Asian giant tends to do with all technologies it comes across. It appears that the EU has its own strategy on how to catch up in the space race. “We are in no way lagging behind. In fact, in some areas we are even more innovative and forward-looking (e.g. in the next 20-year timeframe) than the US, Russia or China,” Husak said.
Galileo, Copernicus and other endeavors
The EU’s space strategy involves three large-scale programs: Galileo, Copernicus and EGNOS. Galileo is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) that is set to be fully operational in 2020, with 30 satellites orbiting Earth (currently we are 60 percent through their deployment). The first data services based on Galileo were launched in 2016. “At the moment, the time it takes to locate a person lost at sea or in the mountains is two hours. With the use of Galileo, it will be cut down to 10 minutes. The system will also be capable of notifying the person in need of rescue that help is on its way, which in many instances can be of crucial importance,” explained Marta Krywanis-Brzostowska, Market Innovation Officer, European GNSS Supervisory Authority (GSA).
The Galileo navigation system can also be tremendously useful in cities, where the standard GPS signal often bounces off tall buildings and gets distorted. This can become very handy when autonomous cars driving in our streets become a reality. It is also extremely accurate in time measurement (up to 30 nanoseconds), which is important for securing financial transactions. Another service it offers is the Public Regulated Service (PRS), which is an encrypted signal that cannot be jammed, used by the police, fire department and other public authorities.
Smartphone producers are already outfitting their new models with chipsets integrated with Galileo, like the new iPhone models (iPhone 8 and iPhone X), as well latest roll-outs by Samsung, Sony, Huawei and other major players. Apart from being newer and more precise, one thing that sets the European system apart from other GNSSs is that unlike the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS, and the Chinese Beidou, Galileo is entirely civilian. “While there has been widespread civilian use of these military systems, you can imagine that in case of a conflict, it is rather easy to switch these services off,” remarked Krywanis-Brzostowska.
The second European initiative is called Copernicus and it is a constellation of six satellites with the capability to take the most accurate photos of the planet’s surface. These pictures are used by search and rescue teams, like during hurricanes Harvey and Irma last year, or the earthquake in Nepal. They tell rescue teams where there are groups of people that need help. The satellites also collect huge amounts of data, e.g. on the temperature of the oceans, CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which has a multitude of uses, e.g. in agriculture and weather forecasting.
The third system – EGNOS (The European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service) is used by airports and ensures that there can be no gaps in airplane tracking. Polish airports are already among those using it, further increasing air traffic safety.
There is another, fourth system, in the works – the so-called GovSatCom. It’s still in the early stages of development, and its goal is to provide secure, hack-proof communication on a European scale. For instance, if a drone was sent to track a terrorist moving from France to, say, Poland, it would currently drop at the French-German border, as there is no direct communication between the systems that individual countries use.
Upstream and downstream
As one can imagine, it takes immense capabilities to store, and make use of the vast swathes of data that comes in from all these satellite systems. And that is also where Poland, with its 200,000 IT engineers, has found its niche.
A Piaseczno-based company, Creotech Instruments, launched less than a decade ago and currently one of FT1000 fastest growing tech firms in Europe, has been working with the ESA to provide cloud computing services for SMEs looking to make commercial use of the data coming from satellites.
“Until recently, you had to pay to get access to the data from Earth satellite monitoring, which was done by massive satellites owned by major corporations and the governments of space race leaders. Then a breakthrough happened when the first satellites from the Sentinel family were launched in 2014,” explained Jacek Kosiec, head of the space program at Creotech Instruments.
Sentinel satellites are part of the Earth observation system built within the Copernicus Program. The EU, together with ESA and its member countries, finances the program in order to provide satellite data to all users free of charge, for private, scientific and commercial uses. The goal of the policy is to stimulate the growth of the satellite data services market. Since 2014, more Sentinel satellites have been built and deployed in orbit and once they become operational, they will start collecting data. Current estimates put the volume of data collected by the entire Sentinel constellation at 10 petabytes annually.
There is a significant bottleneck in the process, namely the inflexible infrastructure which limits access to current and historic data and the limited number of services offered by companies involved in the program, Kosiec said. In order to increase the accessibility of satellite data, the EC, together with the ESA, prepared a project called Copernicus Data and Information Access Service (CDIAS), whose aim is to create four data hubs across Europe that would render access services to satellite data from the Sentinel constellation and other sources within the Copernicus program. “These centers will not only store all the current and historic data, but also provide users with access to the cloud’s computing power, thus allowing European companies to offer services without having to carry out massive investments in their own infrastructure,” Kosiec added.
Small satellites and components
The downstream segment, which means collecting data from space and streaming it down to the planet’s ground centers – albeit important and growing rapidly – is not the only area where Polish space companies have been successful. Polish companies, including Astri Polska, the only Polish firm whose entire revenue comes from space technologies, is strongly focused on designing and delivering systems for satellite testing, as well as applications and satellite services.
And while Poland will probably never be a leader in building rockets, it has already gained recognition for its space drills. In late 2014, a Polish drilling instrument took samples of the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, as part of the ESA’s Rosetta mission, thus becoming the first country to “poke” a comet.
As the satellite industry is developing, at some point there might come a time when insurers will want to step in and they will require data on what risks will be involved in launching them. Given that we currently have about 1,000 satellites orbiting Earth and that within the next 10 years the number will approach 9,000-10,000, the amount of data necessary to navigate them safely and avoid collisions will increase substantially. That is also where Polish firms, including Creotech, see potential for growth.
And what happens with all the satellites that are constantly being launched into space? Going one step further, there are already several Polish start-ups that are coming up with solutions for the space trash problem. Because the real threat is not the 10,000 satellites that will be monitored and capable of making maneuvers to avoid collision. “It is with the 300,000 pieces of space trash that are already out there in the planet’s orbit,” said Piotr Orleański, Deputy Director for Technology, Center for Space Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland. The issue is high on the list of priorities for the EU.
“There’s no shame in being the world’s space garbageman.”
The ISS, for example, was designed to have a life span of 30 years (it is planned to remain operational until 2028). Then, it will be decommissioned and will have to be deorbited safely. Few people outside the space community registered the fact that during Easter this year, a Chinse space station deorbited and mostly burnt up in the atmosphere before falling into the Pacific.
Small satellites are often no bigger than a 10 cm cube and seem innocuous enough when you hold one in your hand. It doesn’t pose any risk on its own, but as space debris, it could potentially do a lot of damage, creating an avalanche of space trash as smaller fragments hit larger pieces destabilizing their orbits. It seems clear that at some point someone will have to clean it up. Poland could very well grab that piece of the cake too. “There’s no shame in being the world’s space garbageman,” said Orleański.
There is another area where Poles have been excelling: a group of Polish students have repeatedly won the global University Rover Challenge. Even though they are not actually space rovers, these inventions can and are being used e.g. in desert exploration or for disarming explosives. According to Husak, there are other niches that have yet to be appropriated and Poland could play a role there, e.g. machinery for space mining or preparing food for space travel, which, given that the first space tourists are set to travel within the next two years, could become a valuable market.
Poland can into space
There’s an old internet meme that uses an anthropomorphized ball-shaped upside-down Polish flag that continues to undertake a series of ventures into space which always inevitably end in failure. The running gag always ends with the “Poland cannot into space” line. Until recently it could have been the case. Even five years ago no one would have believed Poland would actually have space tech companies. Now, as the space industry is becoming more and more egalitarian, Poland’s chances of actually making a mark are increasing. After six years of learning from the best of the best at the ESA, it is time for Polish firms to show the world what they can do.
Ghosts and elves
Another European project that Creotech has been involved in is The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM), a science experiment whose goal is to examine the mysterious phenomena and discharges that happen in the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. It will study these phenomena during strong storms in the stratosphere and mesosphere, dozens of thousands of meters above ground. In the past these spectacles were interpreted as aliens visiting earth. They have been called “blue jets,” “ghosts” and “elves” by scientists. They cannot be observed from earth because the sky is overcast during storms. There are strong indications that they influence the Earth’s weather system and studying them will allow us to perfect climate models for our planet.
The project was ordered by the ESA and carried out by the ASIM consortium, led by Danish company Terma – as the chief technical contractor. ASIM is the largest space instrument ever built under the Danish firm’s leadership. It took 10 years and nearly €40 million, with 100 specialists from Denmark, Norway, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, the US and Poland working side by side.
The consortium included: the DTU Institute from Copenhagen (science lead), the University of Bergen, the University of Valencia, OHB Italia and the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences. The latter was responsible for creating the design and the early models for power supply and distribution for the Gamma-ray detector MXGS (Modular X – and Gamma-ray Sensor), part of the ASIM instrument. Creotech, as the contractor of the Space Research Centre, was responsible for fitting the final models (qualifying and aerial) of the Polish device, which consisted of 30 blocks of electronics that had to meet the highest requirements for space tech.
On April 2, the Falcon 9 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US, which carried the instrument into orbit. There, a cargo capsule Dragon separated from the rocket and set out on a journey to the ISS that lasted days. Then the instrument was successfully mounted with a mechanical arm on the ISS’ European module called Columbus. The device will soon start transmitting data to earth.