Start small, think big

While not yet a major league player, Poland has found its place in the European space industry and is quickly catching up. It can already boast some of the most advanced ground penetration systems in the world. Satellite data processing, space debris tracking, and even space mining could one day become major Polish export industries. WBJ sat down with Grzegorz Brona, recently appointed as the president of the Polish Space Agency, to talk about the present state and the future of the Polish space industry

Interview by Beata Socha

WBJ: How will the space industry in Poland develop within the cooperation with the European Space Agency, and on its own?

Grzegorz Brona: Currently, the Polish space industry is developing exclusively through cooperation with the Agency (ESA). Poland has been an active member of the ESA since 2012 and national entities are encouraged to take part in ESA missions. What is more, a major part of the contributions that members pay to the ESA return to the countries in the form of orders. That is the ESA’s policy and that is the case in Poland as well.

During the first few years there is always a risk that national entities are not technologically advanced enough and for that reason the ESA introduced a special transitory period, which ends in 2019, with development programs exclusively for Poland. The goal is to increase the level of competence of Polish companies and develop products that could be delivered to the ESA in the future.

“Our domestic companies are building world-class systems for detecting and tracking space debris.”

The transitory period is coming to an end soon and we can see that that our companies are becoming more active and effective in procuring contracts on the ESA’s open market, which proves that they have developed successfully. A set of Polish specializations and niches have emerged, including optoelectronics, ground systems for satellite testing, onboard computers, power supply systems, planetary ground penetrators, satellite image processing systems, robotic systems and other.

That said, cooperation with the ESA alone has not led to creating a stable space industry in any of the member countries. That is why state support in the form of a national space program, both civilian and military, is necessary. The Polish Space Agency is responsible for creating such a program. I hope it will accelerate the development of companies and R&D centers in the Polish space industry and allow them to think realistically about the furthest corners of our Solar System.

What products and services will be created in the future in the space industry? Where could Poland find its niche?

The answer to this question depends on the time perspective we consider. In the next few years it will be important to focus on satellite data services: observation and navigation. This requires significant investment and together with programs Copernicus and Galileo – the flagship endeavors of the European Commission and the ESA – it receives a lot of promotion and support from the European Union. Given that Poland can boast excellent, well educated programmers, the ground segment of the space industry, the so-called “downstream,” is also worth considering.

Further down the line, Polish companies could venture into the Space 4.0 market, which means faster, cheaper and more flexible commercial space exploration with small satellites, satellite constellations and small rockets – not necessarily orbital, but used for testing equipment in microgravity.

We are also seeing increased demand for securing space missions and detecting threats from space debris (elements of old satellite systems, rockets etc. that still remain in orbit). This nascent market could become largely dominated by Polish companies, both in terms of observation (our domestic companies are building world-class systems for detecting and tracking space debris), as well as in the debris removal segment (we have organizations specializing in delivering robotic components that can be fitted on future cleaning and servicing satellites). But that is a more distant perspective.

If we want to look even further into the future, 30-50 years from now, space mining seems very promising for our space industry: procuring material from other stellar objects and processing it e.g. to build space habitats. Even though it may seem distant, we already have small Polish firms developing rapidly in that direction.

What should our priority be for the next few years?

I see three main priorities for the Polish Space Agency. First, utilizing as much of the funds available for development of Polish companies as possible. We are talking about financing from the ESA, funds available within the EUMETSAT (European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites), of which we are a member, as well as funding within the EU’s Horizon2020 program. These programs offer a lot of funding and yet in many of them, Polish companies still play a marginal role.

Our second priority is to enter consortia that will be involved in future space projects carried out in Europe in the upcoming financial perspective, such as the SST consortium, which is active in detecting and tracking space debris.

“Right now, the lander ‘Insight’ launched by NASA is flying to Mars and it is equipped with a Polish system for ground penetration designed to explore the Red Planet.”

And finally, it is important to prepare a realistic and feasible national space program. We could of course consider building an orbital rocket, but finding a budget, specialists and the client for the product would be difficult. That’s why our program, at least at first, needs to be composed of complementary smaller-scale projects, that will contribute to building national space potential. Only then can we think of major challenges.

The national space program needs to meet the demands of the industry, science, military and administration. It is a broad and varied group of stakeholders, which makes the challenge even greater. We need to define the program, find funds (preferably from existing schemes, without creating a new budget position) and the right people. Then we need to implement the program so that it leads to creating products and services that will prove to be a good fit for the market.

How much does the young generation know about the space industry in Poland and its potential? Does our educational system provide the right competencies?

Most Poles have no idea that Poland has a space industry. When thinking about space they think of Nicolaus Copernicus and Hermaszewski [the only Polish astronaut to date – ed.]. Naturally, our experience and potential are nowhere near that of the US, France or Germany, but it has been developing rapidly, particularly since 2012. With the growing number of Polish space projects, the perception is also slowly changing – both among the older and younger generations. More and more students look at the developing industry with growing interest.

Unfortunately, at the moment we don’t have enough specialists that could teach space technology at a sufficient level. That is where the European Space Agency with its internship and educational programs comes in. Increasingly, young Poles go to study at the ESA centers for a few months or longer. They come back with invaluable knowledge, which is immediately absorbed by Polish companies. The learning process will take many years, but we can accelerate it by organizing internships at space companies, which is what the Industrial Development Agency (ARP) has been doing.

Of course, the ambitions of the domestic space program need to correspond to staff capacity, which is doable. There is a threat, however, just as in any high-tech industry: the brain drain to foreign companies. And the threat will grow as the space industry develops worldwide, increasing the demand for new staff. In some European countries the demand for space technology specialists over the next few years will exceed 50,000 people!

Which Polish successes in the space industry do you consider the most important? Is it the awards that Polish students won for their Martian rover prototypes, or maybe some of the ESA missions that Polish firms have participated in?

The success of the Polish rovers (or to be more precise rover analogs, because these vehicles were not designed for actual space missions) is a fantastic achievement for our students. But while they show the potential for excellent staff, for now they don’t directly translate into the space industry as such.

As one of Poland’s world-class successes I would name ground penetration systems, where our technological ingenuity is unparalleled. Right now, the lander “Insight” launched by NASA is flying to Mars and it is equipped with a Polish system for ground penetration designed to explore the Red Planet.

Another great example is the system that stores and makes available the data from EU’s Earth observation satellites. The system is currently being created in Poland. We also have systems spread all over the globe to track space debris. These systems belong to Polish companies and institutes. No other country in Europe has such widespread systems. We are beginning to get noticed in the international space community. We are still far from reaching top league, but we do have significant achievements and we are boldly going where no man has gone before.

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