How the Portuguese Space Agency is joining the next satellite space race
Lisbon-based company Tesselo is a tech company which is capable of using satellite imagery with AI-based algorithms, to help improve future infrastructure. As an example of what they’re capable of, when Hurricane Dorian hit the US last summer, houses got wrecked, creeks overflowed and vast stretches of land flooded. But help came from an unlikely source on this side of the pond.
“We help countries plan where to build and not to build structures like housing and parking in order to reduce flood risk,” says Rémi Charpentier, CEO and co-founder of the company.
With this in mind, as well as news that the global space industry is expanding rapidly, as it’s expected to grow from $360 billion in 2018 to $558 billion by 2026, Portugal is eyeing a slice of the pie. European nation is eyeing a slice of the pie. Last year, the government founded its own space agency, Portugal Space. It also announced plans to build a spaceport on the Atlantic islands of the Azores, ready to handle a torrent of small satellites from budding space companies.
Portugal’s already looking for customers who might use the spaceport, expected to come up on the island of Santa Maria. The government signed an agreement with China in December 2018 to build jointly managed research centres that will produce micro-satellites for agricultural and oceanographic uses for example. The two countries will split the 50 million euros in development costs.
In the mainland politicians are also holding grant contests for space start-ups, and increasing cooperation with agencies like the European Space Agency. “We want to increase our space sector by a factor of 10,” says Chiara Manfletti, president of Portugal Space. “We want to become a global authority on space, ocean and climate interaction by 2030, mainly focused on the Atlantic.” In short, the Portuguese space sector seems ready for take-off.
Furthermore, experts say this under-the-radar Portuguese push has a distinct chance of success. “The government in Portugal will clearly be a catalyst for existing businesses and new ones,” says Claude Rousseau, research director at Northern Sky Research, a global research firm on the space industry. “I’m quite positive about it”, she added.
This could be very important for Portugal, both in terms of the economy, as it’s still recovering from the Eurozone crisis, as well as for establishing a larger global reputation. “Space is one of the sectors with the most future potential,” says Ms. Manfletti. “Any company that doesn’t have information from space has a competitive disadvantage.” This, according to Manfletti, can range from logistics firms snooping on what their competitors are doing through satellite imagery to cases where sustainability and space interact.
Tesselo is an excellent example of the type of company Ms. Manfletti and her peers want to create with these efforts. The space startup was founded three years ago and now employs around eight people. It also focuses on key government goals that prime-minister Antonio Costa has throughougly attempted to push forward, like sustainability.
The company is also an example of how the Portuguese effort is supported by the broader European space program. Tesselo has received grants from the European Space Agency and uses images from the Copernicus satellites, which Europe gives away for free. “I’m very happy that Portugal is pushing its space industry,” says Charpentier. “This way it can better contribute to European efforts and strengthen Portugal’s technology ecosystem, and, besides that, new space technology really is the business of the future.”
Politicians in the meantime are hoping that the location of the spaceport they’re planning on Santa Maria benefits from a global boom in demand for small satellites, which are cheaper — though they also have lower payloads.
The small satellites global market is estimated to grow from $514 million in 2018 to $2.9 billion by 2030. “It’s quite exciting,” says Manfletti. “It would operate more like an airport, where you have different airlines flying out of it. So our approach is very commercially driven.” At the same time, they also want to use the spaceport to boost local industry. “We don’t want companies to come in with all their own equipment, and then leave nothing behind,” she says.
Though the spaceport’s location — between Europe, the U.S. and Africa — is “great,” Rousseau cautions that Portugal could face challenges. It isn’t just the market for small satellites that’s growing — competition is too, with countries like the U.K. and Norway planning new launch sites. “Competition will be fierce,” says Rousseau.
At the same time, smaller countries like Israel and Luxembourg are pushing the space market as well. That the market is expanding is “good news” for Portugal, says Rousseau, “but they will need to keep investing in everything, from infrastructure to training new engineers.”