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Will Portugal be a space nation?

The Portuguese Space Agency (PT Space) celebrated the 30th anniversary of the launch of PoSat-1, the first national satellite, a few months ago. The session brought a strong dose of nostalgia for this pioneering spirit and success, but it did not have the continuity that would have been predicted in the following years. PoSat-1 was launched aboard Ariane 4 Flight 59 in the early hours of September 25, 1993, from Kourou, French Guiana.

This occasion gave rise to a generation that always considered national participation in space programs possible. In parallel, Portugal began negotiations for its accession to the European Space Agency (ESA), becoming its 15th full member state in November 2000. This was a fundamental milestone, allowing access to space projects and technologies by companies, research institutions and universities, being the aggregating element of national space activity.

Despite relevant space activity on the part of Portuguese actors, it took 30 years for a new satellite to be launched, being the precursor to two more launches scheduled for 2024. The MH-1 was developed by a national consortium in cooperation with MIT, USA, and was launched on Falcon 9 flight 306 operated by Space X on March 4, 2024. The MH-1 recently signaled life, sending the first images of Earth produced by a national technology satellite.

The remaining launches planned for this year come from academies. On July 9, 2024, ISTSat-1, developed by Instituto Superior Técnico, was launched on the inaugural flight of Ariane 6 in Kourou, in a double ephemeris, taking place with the long-awaited heavy launcher European. In the last quarter, the launch of the University of Minho’s first satellite, PROMETHEUS -1, is scheduled for Space X.

In addition to satellites as technology integrators, there are other innovations under development that contribute significantly to the sector, such as digital technologies for the management and operation of satellites, new materials and processes of satellite production and instrumentation for Earth observation and atmosphere assessment and also new technologies for small launchers. It is a virtuous alignment with the new international vision for space, called NewSpace.

As a boosting element, the technological agendas based on the Recovery and Resilience Plan (PRR) made it possible to bring new ambition to the sector. In addition to the necessary investment, they guarantee the consolidation of skills and the aggregation of contributions from industry and academia, in a structured logic that enables positioning in the international value chain of the NewSpace, boosting qualified employment and talent retention. Projects such as the Atlântica Constellation are a good example of integration and demonstration of technological capacity, in addition to the obvious alignment with national interests focused on the Atlantic.

The agendas arising from the PRR focused on the space sector allow consolidating technological developments, articulating advanced training needs with academies and structuring future participation in the new space economy that is in definition. Additionally, Portugal must play an active role and increase its investment and proximity to ESA. Evolution shows positive signs. Portugal is already taking very effective advantage of the geographic return with a value consistently above 100% in recent years. Since these calls for financing are competitive, it highlights the maturation of our ecosystem. The latest figures point to more than 400 registered entities and a contract capture value above 115 million euros since 2015.

Portugal has assumed a more relevant role in this field. From 2019 onwards, it invested in a new level of involvement with ESA, significantly reinforcing the subscription to that Agency’s optional programs. The decision brought important opportunities for national industry and academia. In total, the country made a financing commitment of 102.7 million euros for 2022-2025, when it had had 73.69 million euros subscribed in the period 2016-2019. Also in November 2021, in Matosinhos, Portugal organized and chaired the ESA Intermediate Ministerial Summit, which gave the mandate to that executive to move forward with the guidelines strategies of the 2025 Agenda, expressed in a document called Matosinhos Manifesto.

In 2025, the Ministerial Meeting of ESA Member States will be held to define the budget and priorities for the coming years. It is expected that the ESA 2040 strategy will be presented by its director general, whose alignment is ongoing among member countries. And Portugal has played an active role in this process.

There is a new awakening in the global space sector that could be a focus of excellence and national technological affirmation. A dual and complementary strategy with ESA is a wise vision. It enables the development of technology, its positioning in the global economy and, simultaneously, brings the national ecosystem closer to space programs that can only be developed on the scale of large space agencies. Portugal is developing a trajectory that will enable its inclusion in a restricted club of countries with space programs of strategic and economic relevance.

Source

Francesco Giganti

Journalist, social media, blogger and pop culture obsessive in newshubpro

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