An artist’s illustration of a synthetic aperture-radar satellite orbiting the Earth.
 Sometimes the best insights come from afar. Finnish companies have made strides in satellite technology in recent years, including in space-borne photography. Image: ICEYE

Finnish firms show enterprise in spacetech

Finland has quietly carved itself a relevant role in space technology with cutting-edge solutions for spacecraft control and space-borne photography, for example.

Aleksi Teivainen

21.10.2021

Finland has the potential to leverage its expertise in domains such as artificial intelligence, communication technology, data analytics and remote sensing to become one of the leading countries in satellite technology, believes VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Its strides in the burgeoning field have garnered attention, domestically and globally, especially after the launch of Aalto-1, the first ever satellite registered by Finland, in 2017.

Finnish companies and research centres, though, have contributed to major space projects undertaken in Europe for decades, largely by supplying key instrumentation or systems. The Finnish Meteorological Institute‘s (FMI) supplied measuring instrumentation for Aspera, a device launched into space onboard the Soviet Union’s Mars-bound Phobos 2 in 1988.

Space technologies are today perceived as a means to not only explore the galaxy, but also to solve a plethora of problems on Earth.

Remote sensing, together with smart data analytics, can be utilised to cut the response times of fire departments to wildfires, to monitor and mitigate the ramifications of the climate crisis, to manage and optimise the use of farms and forest areas, and to improve traffic safety and pave the way for autonomous mobility.

Aalto University has been at the forefront of many such enterprises in Finland. Not only did its students design and build Aalto-1, it also served as the springboard for the largest spacetech company in the country, ICEYE.

Insights from afar

The Espoo-based provider of satellite imaging data was earlier this month designated as a contributing mission to Copernicus, the world’s largest terrestrial observation programme, which is managed on behalf of the European Commission by European Space Agency (ESA).

A hyper-spectral image of New York City.

A satellite image of New York City in the US. ICEYE’s constellation of synthetic aperture-radar satellites provides high-definition images regardless of weather conditions and time of day. Image: ICEYE

Services in the programme will provide access to the mass of imaging data generated by the constellation of synthetic-aperture radar satellites of ICEYE. The imaging technology, the company highlighted, is unperturbed by external factors such as smoke, cloudiness or darkness, thus providing an uninterrupted flow of high-definition imaging data.

The uses for the data range from monitoring land use and controlling land and marine borders to improving public security.

“ICEYE’s mission is to help our customers to make informed, data-driven decisions to address time-critical challenges,” summarised Rafal Modrzewski, CEO of ICEYE.

Toni Tolker-Nielsen, acting director of observation programmes at ESA, said the agency is proud to enter into a co-operation with “one of the few new-space companies” in the field of Earth-observation in Europe.

The Finnish company announced last spring its imaging capabilities extend over 10 000 square kilometres. Many of its largest clients are large insurance companies, ex-CEO Pekka Laurila told Helsingin Sanomat in September 2020.

“Our radar satellites can, for instance, photograph the flood damage caused by hurricanes in real time, in weather where no one is capable of flying,” he said.

Kuva Space is on a similar mission. The Espoo-based startup reported recently that it has closed a seed-funding round worth 4.2 million euros for its efforts to provide space-borne imaging data on soil and vegetation that enables businesses, governments and ecological asset owners to make more effective decisions in domains such as sustainable farming, carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.

Seven people posing for a photo

Kuva Space specialises in providing space-borne imaging data on soil and vegetation, helping a variety of stakeholders to control, manage and monitor their ecological assets. Image: Kuva Space

The funding round was led by Voima Ventures and Nordic FoodTech, together with European Space Agency (ESA) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

The services provided by the startup are grounded in imaging data derived from a constellation of nanosatellites that are equipped with one-of-a-kind hyper-spectral camera technology to provide unrivalled performance-to-size ratio. Farmers, for example, can use the data to improve yields and crop quality and asset owners to prepare for risks and react to natural phenomena like floods and landslides.

Kuva Space presently has three nanosatellites in operation, with a fourth launch scheduled for the last quarter of 2022.

Sharpshooting for the Moon

Finnish spacetech knowhow is not limited to imaging solutions, however.

Aurora Propulsion Technologies has caught the attention of investors with solutions for de-orbiting and manoeuvring satellites with high precision. The Espoo-based startup reported roughly a month ago it has wrapped up a 1.7 million-euro seed-funding round led by Practica Capital of Lithuania and joined by Finnish Industry Investment (Tesi) and The Flying Object, a fund managed by Kluz Ventures.

Boosted by the funding injection, its two spearhead products – a tiny thruster engine and plasma braking system – are to be tested in an in-orbit demonstration in the final quarter of year as part of a ride-share mission led by Rocket Lab.

The miniature satellite will be equipped with six resistojet thrusters to enable its precision control in space. The centimetre-long thrusters, which utilise microlitres of water and propellant, will be installed in such a way that they enable the satellite to be guided and rotated in virtually any direction.

A miniature satellite in a laboratory.

AuroraSat-1, a 1.5-unit cube satellite by Aurora Propulsion Technologies, was launched to low-Earth orbit on SpaceX Falcon 9 in the first half of 2021. Image: Aurora Propulsion Technologies

While the solution has great potential, its scalability is somewhat limited due to the material strength of plasma brake tethers: it is capable of manoeuvring spacecraft weighing up to 200 kilos and de-orbiting spacecraft weighing no more than 1 000 kilos.

“That’s our future. That’s where we’re aiming,” Roope Takala, CEO of Aurora Propulsion Technologies, stated in an interview with TechCrunch.

While the recent funding injection should enable the startup to finalise the technological development of the products, carry out the demonstration flights and make key hires to support its transition to a growth phase, the longer-term objective is to carry out missions in deep space, according to Takala.

“We started off from the idea that we want to make a technology that fits into a really small spacecraft [and] travels really fast so that we can catch up with the Voyager probes,” he stated. “First to the Moon, and then to Mars, Venus.”

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