Czech space research chief: Country is ready to play the space game

VZLUSat-1, photo: archive of Czech Aeronautical Research Institute

Since the country joined the European Space Agency (ESA) 10 years ago, the Czech space industry has seen a growth both in size and capabilities. Now the director of the Czech Aerospace Research Centre says the groundwork in expertise and resources has been laid for the country to take the next step.

Josef Kašpar,  photo: archive of Czech Aerospace Research Centre
Space used to be the domain of large states that could muster the extraordinary resources necessary in order to break out of the earth’s gravity and send probes into the wider ranges of the solar system. Recent years, however, have seen a greater proliferation of those who can, or at least wish to enter the cosmos. This includes states but also private companies that are hoping to expand into space tourism, asteroid mining and, in the case of SpaceX, even the colonisation of Mars.

Membership in the European Space Agency, which the Czech Republic joined 10 years ago, has allowed the country not to act as a bystander, but partner in some of these projects. I spoke to one of the men at the centre of the Czech space research programme, Josef Kašpar, the director of the Czech Aerospace Research Centre.

“It was an incredible journey from scratch. I would say for our whole industry. The space industry and the activities connected to it are most important to us. We learned more and are growing in expertise. We have done a lot of research in these past ten years as well as establishing new industrial partnerships and educational programs in high schools and universities.“

Recently a debate opened up about the creation of a Czech Space Agency, or a similar institution that would act as a central organ for supporting the space industry and research. Why should the Czech Republic invest in its own space programme?

“I think that it is not really a question but a matter of necessity. When it comes to the Czech space industry it is necessary to have a coordinating organ over the critical mass of people and technical resources. These are after all very important and expensive undertakings.

“Regarding the Czech space program, I think that it is a sort of practical proof of our country’s self confidence in international space activities and a spring in the knowledge of industrial leadership. We have seen from companies abroad that this research has multiple benefits also affecting other branches of industry.”

Are there any emerging trends that you believe the Czech space industry should get involved in?

"When it comes to the Czech space industry it is necessary to have a coordinating organ over the critical mass of people and technical resources. These are after all very important and expensive undertakings."

“There certainly are a lot of opportunities. A lot of companies have sprung up in the past ten years. It is not just business though. We have organisations and universities that are focused on space research.

“For us the main trends we can specifically look into are the settlement of the low-earth orbit by a constellation of satellites that is a whole new area to be explored. Furthermore, we can also follow the activities of NASA and the European Space Agency, they plan to activate the moon as a sort of gate for further space exploration and for us deep space exploration is a very attractive area to get involved in.”

EU representatives recently met in Madrid to outline a broad ESA strategy, also known as Space19+, which among other things envisions making “Europe central to the new era of global space exploration - forward to the Moon and on to Mars”. What role can the Czechs play in this?

“I am really happy that both NASA and the ESA have bold plans for the future, which include establishing a permanent presence on the moon and using it as a launch pad for traveling to Mars and other areas in space. It is a perfect target for all nations, including the Czech Republic.

“I certainly think that our country’s industry can be an active part of this strategy, because there will be a greater demand for researching new materials, technologies, structures and procedures. Basically anything you need for life support. I think we have intelligent researchers and engineers, now supported by a suitable environment and the experience necessary for the growth of related projects.

Ion engine,  photo: archive of Czech Aerospace Research Centre
“I would like to mention that the game has already started and some of our companies are already on board, others are close to getting involved. It is a huge target, but we are prepared for it.”

We have been looking at the broad picture, but you primarily represent the Czech Aerospace Research Centre (VZLÚ). How does your organisation specifically contribute to the space programme?

“We are a state owned national centre for aviation and space. So I guess you could say it is in our nature to be the nucleus of this industry and provide support. Regarding our main contribution in the various space programmes you can divide it into four pillars. The first is to play the role of a space testing centre, with the approval of the ESA. Second, we can serve as a sub-system and component provider. Right now we are working on special devices for orientation and stabilisation control, on-board computers and an ion engine. The third pillar of our activities is that of a satellite manufacturer. Perhaps you could also say operator - is a new strategy we are exploring related to the low-earth orbit [LEO] activities of our commercial partners.

“Finally, we play an important role in programme and technical consulting. These are related mainly to quality and product assurance. Something that is important in establishing a good reputation for our companies worldwide.”

You mentioned an ion engine. Could you elaborate on that? It sounds very interesting.

“It is a big dream from the past, but now we have mathematical and physical simulations as well as some testing equipment on the ground, so I can say that this ion engine, which is based around breathing the air in low orbit, is a very important technology for extending the lifespan of LEO satellites. If we are successful, it could be one of the most relevant commercial contributions from the Czech Republic.”

Another thing about your organisation is that you actually have your own satellite in space, the VZLUSat-1, which recently celebrated 500 days in orbit.

“I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of companies in Europe, the USA and Canada. I saw the working standards, quality and the experience of these teams. I have become truly convinced that Czech space companies and research organisations are fully competitive in this broad range of space activities."

“Yes. For me personally our satellite is a project that brings me great joy. It was a very risky project. We spent a lot of energy and money on it, with support from the technological agency and the ministry of industry and trade. The satellite is still working, which is great because originally we planned for it to have a shorter lifespan. This project was the result of an integrated effort by those involved in Czech space activities and we have gathered both experience as well as valuable data from it. I believe it was a crucial step for our future plans.”

Do you want to launch any other satellites in the future?

“Yes. Another satellite, very similar to VZLUSat-1, will be launched in two years. It will primarily serve as a platform for testing certain industrial solutions for space. Then, I also believe we will test the ion engine in space, also in this small volume. “

So, do you believe the Czech space industry is competitive on the global market?

“I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of companies in Europe, the USA and Canada. I saw the working standards, quality and the experience of these teams. I have become truly convinced that Czech space companies and research organisations are fully competitive in this broad range of space activities. My impression today is that companies from abroad are getting in contact and asking us for solutions. So I think have become active players.”

Economists often criticize the Czech economy for not being diversified enough and too reliant on the automobile industry. If the space industry in the Czech Republic were to significantly expand, perhaps also thanks to the boom in the private industry, could this really help diversify the economy, or will the space industry always be a bit too small for that?

“I am confident the space industry will be developed together with the aviation industry because these two branches are very close. International companies active in space matters are also working in aviation, because it is a safe harbour for their business. The space and aviation industries will be growing together in the Czech Republic. I even want to say unlimitedly, so I think that it is important contemporary political representatives provide the necessary support to help create this high added value to the economy.”

Looking into the future, where do you see the Czech space industry in 10 years’ time?

VZLUSat-1,  photo: archive of Czech Aerospace Research Centre
“As I said before, our country is ready to play this huge space game. It is all a question of investment capacity and cooperation with key national and international players. In 2028 is see the Czech Republic as a very valuable member of the ESA. Cooperating not only with European companies but I believe also with US companies and with Canada, where I saw a lot of opportunities. Czech performance in space will be tripled, perhaps even quadrupled, due to the growth of this sector. Contemporary small and medium enterprises will grow into large companies. Often these will be co-owned by companies from abroad.

"Furthermore, Czech industry will develop and produce very complex parts, no longer just being small members of the supply chain. These parts will be used in satellites and launchers. Czech companies and research organisations will co-operate in the European and US operations aimed at establishing a footprint on the moon. Finally, I think the Czech Republic will start with deploying its own small satellite constellation deployment, mainly for security reasons. Perhaps it sounds like a dream but I believe that our people are able to do it all.”