Establishing communication between satellites and with Earth. Exploring the surface of Mars. Launching satellites from Hawaii. Creating numerical models that simulate the re-entry of NASA’s spacecrafts into the atmosphere. Building navigation systems that operate in space. All this is possible and it’s being accomplished by Técnico’s former undergraduate, Master’s and advanced diploma students.
“I always wanted to be an astronaut – since I was 16. Besides, I was passionate about space.” The story of Ivo Vieira, founder and CEO of LusoSpace, a private company founded in 2002 to establish a connection between research and the development of space applications, and a former engineering physics student, is paradigmatic of almost all these alumni.
Bruno Lopez has the same opinion: “This is an area you can easily fall in love with”. The Frenchman spent the last four years completing a postdoctoral degree at the Institute for Plasma Research and Nuclear Fusion (IPFN) with professor Mário Lino da Silva. He is now working at the University of Illinois, USA, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop models that can simulate the re-entry of spacecrafts into the Earth’s atmosphere. All this is applied to missions to Mars, “NASA’s main goal right now”, he says.
Currently, most projects concerning space exploration are still conducted under protocols with either NASA or ESA (European Space Agency), but this could change. “In the past few years we have been witnessing a transformation in the [space] sector, which involves the democratization of space access through the emergence of new players”, says Pedro Rodrigues, business developer at TEKEVER and former student of aerospace engineering, and electrical and computer engineering.
Small and medium-sized companies are increasingly relevant in this area. But there is room for large companies such as Airbus Defence and Space, for instance, where Nuno Rodolfo Silva works. Until recently, this aerospace engineer was the coordinator of the ExoMars mission, whose goal is to search for signs of life on Mars through a remote control vehicle. Recently, he was put in charge of the Flight Dynamics and Attitude and Orbital Control Systems/Guidance Navigation and Control department (AOCS/GNC) in the same company. “Exploring Mars is one of the mechanisms we can use to increase knowledge, and knowledge is what makes us evolve, adapt and improve further and further”, he says when asked about the importance of this mission.
This reason is, in fact, mentioned by almost all interviewees, but some would like to add other motives. According to Miguel Nunes, research assistant at the University of Hawaii, USA, the return on this kind of investment is highly relevant. The investment made in these technologies offers a huge return to the economy of these countries. “There are very important technologies for society today resulting from space exploration in the 1960s”, he reminds us.
This former Técnico aerospace engineering student ended up in Hawaii “by surprise”, not knowing exactly what to expect after being invited by a former teacher. He landed there in 2009 to conclude a Master’s degree and stayed on for his PhD. “The project here is to create a new launch site in Hawaii. When I came here there was nothing, we had to create a launcher and the whole infrastructure to build a satellite”, Nunes explains. The first launch was in November, and unfortunately it didn’t go well. “What usually happens with these projects is that the first launches always fail. We wanted to break the pattern, but it didn’t work out”, he jokes.
The future? Going to space
Sending more vehicles into space is the goal of almost all interviewees, directly or indirectly. For Bruno Lopez, setting up the Hypersonic Plasmas Laboratory (ESTHER project) at Técnico is a crucial step towards that goal, and it will ensure a growing cooperation between NASA and Técnico. “Once the shock tube is operational there will be a lot of interaction between IPFN and NASA Ames, within a more experimental context. With my work there, I hope to provide collaboration on a more theoretical level”, says Lopez.
For Ivo Vieira, the priority is “having more Portuguese products flying in space”. Nuno Rodolfo Silva, on the other hand, hopes to be involved in more vehicles: “There have been as many as five ATVs [automated transfer vehicle], but we only developed one.”
Pedro Rodrigues is more ambitious: “I see TEKEVER as one of the major references in Portugal, and in a short time I think it will compete on an equal footing with large European companies”, he says. “I hope to be a part of this journey, and to be able to contribute in some way to help TEKEVER and Portugal find their place on the space industry map. I also want to go to space, but that’s a different story…”
There are also options for students
One thing is for sure: for many, the passion for space has been there since they were kids. Undergraduate students can also become involved in this area. Diogo Henriques leads the Balua project – a research and development project whose ambition is to create a new type of altitude platform, one which uses weather balloons.
“The project has research potential, but that is not our main goal. What we really want is to transfer knowledge between the several students participating in the project”, he explains. “Our goal is that new students can get to see things happening, build electronics, test everything… and eventually reach space.”