New breed of space tech is coming from Finland

High tech and Finland go together. This northern country initiated the mobile phone revolution, built mighty ice breakers, conceived the high-rise super elevators and invaded the world with Angry Birds. Finland is definitely a country of engineering and technology.

But can you name any Finnish space mission?

You can’t very likely: Finland is only now becoming a space power. The first Finnish satellite, student-built Aalto-1 (image below) is slated to be launched in this summer, and it has already several successors being built and designed, with many other new-style space missions shaping up.

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In fact, Finland has been in space business for a long time, but mainly as a subcontractor, producing many vital parts and systems for mainly European spacecraft. The Finnish scientists have and are participating practically every major European Space Agency mission, providing occasionally also small, but important hardware.

Top-level space tech knowhow from Finland

When the Huygens lander touched down to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2004, it was guided by Finnish radars while sniffing the hazy atmosphere with Finnish instruments.

The huge main mirror of the world’s largest space telescope, ESA’s Herschel, was polished to its mind-boggling accuracy in Finland. The background radiation detected by Planck (image below) mission was in fact gathered with Finnish radio receivers. And the GOMOS instrument aboard the Envisat environmental satellite was more expensive and complicated than many small satellites.

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Add the meteorological sensors used by ESA and NASA on almost every Mars surface mission, sensors on the landing legs of Rosetta’s Philae lander (image below) that made first contact with the comet surface, software running on several satellites, microwave technology on Sentinel-1 satellites, electric field and particle detectors, X-ray instruments and the electronics controlling the power supply for many spacecraft, Finland is definitely not lacking the space segment knowhow. It’s just not a Finnish way to shout about these kinds of success stories.

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With its own new, fully managed space projects, the Finnish space sector is now standing up: they’re not only capable, but they’re also saying it loud and clear.

The technology used in nano and microsatellites is extremely well suited for Finnish companies and the size and complexity of the small satellite projects aligns perfectly with capacity of a small country. Finland has demonstrated in very clear way how to pack reliable high technology into small and light containers – remember the mobile phones?

Like the Permanent State Under-Secretary Petri Peltonen says in his blog: You no longer need to be a superpower to take advantage of space technology. The actual in-orbit satellite technologies are also quickly disrupting, with micro- and nanosatellites gaining a growing role. This has opened the doors to space for small countries like Finland, individual companies and university research groups.

From state to a space state

Take the Aalto-1 satellite: it’s built by students, but it hosts three interesting experimental instruments with potential for ambitious future use and the satellite has been built and tested according to the criteria of any big satellite. The small hyperspectral camera is doing a job like bigger and heavier ones, the radio science pack can be compared with the much more expensive equivalents and the novel electromagnetic brake is first of its kind.

The follow-up missions from this three-block cubesat are slightly smaller, consisting two units. They are also made partly by a new space tech start-up, a spin-off company founded by students who invented better ways to design small satellites when creating the Aalto-1.

Space startups rise

This newly founded company, Reaktor Space Lab, is looking toward the emerging era of satellite business (image below). It’s one of the new, ambitious and flexible companies that inspired by SpaceX and empowered by possibilities nano-satellite technology trying to bring part of the small satellite business to Finland.

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Iceye (first image) is another start-up, but it has its eyes on larger systems. It has developed a compact and light super radar that can be easily accommodated in small satellites with mass of about 100 kg. The company is planning a fleet of these satellites, providing around-the-clock and global Earth observation data for clients ranging from shipping companies to agriculture and more institutional bodies from disaster relief to climate scientists. The technology could be adopter later also in planetary missions.

Hardware development is naturally accompanied with software and services.

The most successful Finnish space company, Space Systems Finland, is experiencing a boom, especially after introducing its knowhow from space to earthly critical systems, such as heavy machinery and medicine.

New service company Satellio offers analysis and data products based on the Earth observation data gathered by the different satellites, especially the Sentinels of the EU’s Copernicus system.

All these are accompanied by dozens of other newly founded companies and the old players like DA-Design, RUAG Finland, Oxford Instruments Analytical and Vaisala, to name just few, who are all benefiting from the fresh wind blowing in the Finnish space community.

Ten facts about Finland in Space

1. Finland has participated in European Space Agency programmes since 1987 and has been a full member state since 1995. Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation is responsible for coordinating and financing the Finnish participation in ESA. Tekes funding is also behind many earlier and current Finnish space innovations mentioned in this very article.

2. The Finnish space systems and applications industry has 60 companies, who employ over 200 people and have yearly sales of around 300 million euros.

3. The public space sector (research organisations and governmental public services) employs many more people. The cost is about 30 million euros, but the direct benefits of the space-based public services are 10 times more.

4. The first notable Finnish space project was the Swedish-Russian-Finnish plasma instrument Aspera for Russian Phobos-1, launched in 1988.

5. Finland’s space policy has focused its resources to specific practical uses of space and scientific research like positioning applications, forest resource inventories and environmental monitoring of our lake and marine waters with satellite remote sensing.

6. Finland has been a pioneer in space weather and ionosphere research with one of the longest constant magnetosphere measurements (started in 1844) and modern observations made in Lapland from early 1900s.

7. Finnish industry and science community have participated in more than 80 space missions since 1988 in cooperation with ESA, United States, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, China and India.

8. The first satellite officially registered to Finland will be Aalto-1. It will be launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 later this year.

9. The highlights of the Finnish space technology and research are light structures, electronics, software, microwave and X-ray technology, atmospheric sensors, ozone detection, space weather and Earth observation related especially to forestry, ice, snow cover and open sea.

10. The most expensive space hardware with important participation from Finland was GOMOS ozone instrument for ESA’s Envisat satellite. The Finnish Meteorological Institute was one of the proposers of the instrument that studied the atmosphere the technique of stellar occultation.

Text: Jari Mäkinen
Images: Iceye, Aalto, ESA, Reaktor