Luxembourg in the vanguard of the 21st century space race

Published on 03/05/2018

Space exploration was long seen as a pursuit for countries to play out their geopolitical rivalries, especially in the period of rapid development between the 1950s and 1970s, which saw the first satellites and Moon landings. However, a growing realisation that science derived from space observation and exploration has important applications for life on Earth has prompted increased collaboration among countries in the past decade, and especially between governments and private companies.

The critical earthbound problems to which space exploration may offer answers include scarcity of certain resources, such as metals and minerals used in ever greater quantities by the electronics and automobile sectors. Governments and companies are investigating the presence below the surface of the Moon and within other near-Earth bodies, especially asteroids, of significant quantities of metals such as iron, nickel, tungsten, cobalt and rare earth elements, plus ammonia, nitrogen, hydrogen and other gases.

Scientific research prompted by space exploration has long delivered practical applications on Earth – for example, artificial intelligence systems developed to prepare astronauts for space are now being employed to help solve crime. Initiatives in miniaturisation initiatives undertaken to facilitate the launch of satellites and other payloads are creating spin-off benefits in areas such as medicine and manufacturing.

Alongside these trends has been a revolution in the space launch industry. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, along with other private companies, has challenged both the technology and the economics of established public-sector players, pioneering the recovery and re-use of launcher components, lowering the costs of space missions significantly, and enabling expansion at a time when national space programmes are under budgetary constraints.

Terrestrial magnet for a space industry

Against this backdrop, Luxembourg two years ago launched its SpaceResources.lu initiative to support private-sector efforts to identify, access and collect valuable resources from space bodies. The legislation, which came into force in August 2017 and offers legal clarity to companies on the ownership and use of their discoveries, establishes a legal and regulatory regime for authorisation and oversight of space exploration and resource extraction activities.

In addition to the European subsidiaries of leading asteroid mining start-ups, the Grand Duchy is now hosting businesses in fields ranging from space-based data and nanosatellite development to in-orbit manufacturing and lunar exploration. The government has also concluded space co-operation agreements with Japan, the United Arab Emirates and China, with other countries likely to follow.

Luxembourg – which arguably invented today’s satellite broadcasting and telecommunications landscape with its creation in 1985 of the Société Européenne des Satellites, now the world’s largest private sector satellite operator – is an active member of the European Space Agency and in particular its ARTES programme to develop innovative satellite communications systems and services. The government encourages the development of space activities through a variety of financial support initiatives, most recently a planned dedicated space venture capital fund.

Space testbed for superblack coatings

As the country’s dedicated research and technology organisation, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) is at the heart of space-related R&D efforts, including collaboration with the ESA. It currently has fourteen ongoing joint projects with the European agency, with more in development.

A notable example of collaboration between LIST and the ESA is a project to develop superblack coatings for ultra-sensitive optical instruments and devices. Current solutions, such as black paints and anodisation, can be expensive, lead to contamination and are difficult to apply to complex mechanical parts. In recent years, carbon nanotubes have emerged as an alternative superblack coating technology that involves fewer drawbacks.

Space is a critical testing environment for such coatings. They need to be resistant to oxidation and offer sufficiently high cohesion and adhesion, as well as compatibility with various substrates, processing temperatures as low as 400°C, and complex three-dimensional structures. The patented materials and processes1 offer great potential for applications involving stray light reduction.

Pioneering earth observation software

But LIST is not only approaching the space segment from a material science perspective. Coinciding with the launch of the ENVISAT mission by ESA, LIST has initiated a research activity targeting the improvement, by the means of satellite Earth Observation (EO) data, of operational flood management at large scale.

The HASARD® flood mapping and flood hazard assessment service that is now implemented on ESA’s Grid Processing On Demand (GPOD) Platform and available to external users for processing the stream of data coming from COPERNICUS EO satellites, is the result of many years of collaboration between LIST and ESA. As of today HASARD® enables the systematic, automatic and reliable spaceborne Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)-based mapping of terrestrial water bodies to support flooding-related disaster risk reduction at global scale.

The value of the HASARD mapping service has been effectively demonstrated in the framework of major flooding disasters that have hit many parts of the world in the last year. For example, the events of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the Americas have recently provided a wealth of imagery covering the large areas affected by these events. Interpreting this quasi continuous data stream in a timely manner using HASARD® has brought critical information to support decision making by national authorities in the US.

Patented technology for a lunar rover

Another current space-related project for the institute involves a strategic partnership with Japanese lunar exploration firm ispace on a roving spectrometer to prospect and analyse lunar resources such as ice and surface rock and dust deposits. The development of the spectrometer by LIST’s Material Research and Technology department incorporates technology and expertise protected by two patents granted last year as part of the LIST’s asset portfolio2.

The project aims to create a space-deployable one-dimensional focal plane detector for LIST’s high-performance compact mass spectrometer, which will be integrated into an ispace micro-rover robot. The programme should also contribute to advances in high-resolution, high-sensitivity, nano-analytics instrumentation.

With more than 30 companies now active in the space industry and engaged in ground-breaking research and development activities, Luxembourg offers business an unmatched combination of scientific expertise, legal and regulatory stability, and financial resources and capability – plus the political leadership and determination to help lead one of the 21st century’s greatest challenges and opportunities. LIST is committed to deepening its collaboration with high-tech businesses in the Grand Duchy and to further development of its portfolio of space-related patents.

 

> This article is the TECH WATCH, featured article of LIST Quarterly - the first edition of LIST's digital newsletter published in early May 2018.

 

1 N. Bahlawane, “Carbon-nanotube-based composite coating and production method thereof”, WO201701406 published on January 5, 2017.
2  H.Q. Hoang, D. Dowsett, T. Wirtz, “Mass spectrometer with optimized magnetic shunt” EP2943970 granted on March 8, 2017, and H.Q. Hoang, D. Dowsett, T. Wirtz, “Mass spectrometer with improved magnetic sector” EP2943971 granted on May 10, 2017.

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