Two hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by the vast wilderness of Swedish Lapland, lies the space centre Esrange. During its more than forty years of operation, over 500 sounding rockets and a similar amount of stratospheric balloons have been launched from here for scientific research. NIB Newsletter visited this unique site, which is undergoing a large-scale development project, partly financed by NIB.
During our one-hour drive from the town of Kiruna to Esrange Space Center, we don’t see much from the bus window other than forest, mountains on the horizon and a few reindeers. The weather is snowy and misty, but when silhouettes of large antennas facing the sky catch our eyes, we know that we are approaching.
Åse Lagerqvist, Vice President and CFO of Swedish Space Corporation, welcomes the NIB team to the space centre, and guides us through the security procedures at the gate.
“The development of Esrange is a big and important project for us”, she says. “When it’s finalised, this will be the most advanced space centre in Europe with cutting edge technology.”
The early days of space industry
Esrange Space Center is owned and operated by Swedish Space Corporation, which in turn is owned by the Swedish state. The launch impact area stretches over a vast, unpopulated Lappish forest landscape of 5,600 square kilometres. We want to know why Sweden decided to engage in space industry, and why here?
“Back in the 1960s, when Esrange was established, I think every country that could afford it was interested in moving into the space industry, because of the moon landings and the hype around that”, Ms Lagerqvist explains. “In the case of Esrange reasons were scientific, but space also had strong strategic significance during the Cold War.”
But Esrange was not only a Swedish initiative, she adds. It was established, and is still operating, as a multilateral agreement between Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and Switzerland.
“Given that none of these countries could afford to establish a space industry by themselves, and the unique location found in northern Sweden, they decided to establish a common space centre here.”
At the time, the main purpose for the base was to launch sounding rockets and stratospheric balloons for scientific missions, but since the mid-1970s the field has developed and broadened thanks to satellite communication.
“For this purpose, Esrange’s high-latitude location is a great asset, since the closer to the poles you are, the better satellite communication gets”, says Ms Lagerqvist.
Satellites – a strategic issue for Europe
What perhaps first comes to mind when thinking of satellites are the navigation and localisation systems, nowadays often connected to our mobile phones.
“But satellites also handle our telecommunications”, Ms Lagerqvist points out. “And we have space cameras sending us pictures, maps and weather data, just to give a few examples. Even things like ATM services for cash withdrawals are linked to satellites. Daily life on earth is very dependent on space-related services, and we provide safe and independent access to space. So this project is of strategic importance for the region.”
The first phase of the development project will focus on refurbishment, she says.
“The rocket base at Esrange is over forty years old, so it is time to invest in it. The next step will be to develop our existing services even further, so that we can do more launches and better experiments.”
“Later on, we are planning a much bigger and more challenging development, which is to start launching smaller satellites into orbit. This is something we don’t do today, and it is in fact not possible to launch satellites anywhere in Western Europe. The access we have now is in French Guiana. So it is quite a big and important step to take.”
Also when it comes to satellite launches, Esrange’s northern, remote location is optimal, considering the security risks involved.
“There are hardly any big enough unpopulated areas left in Europe, but if you look at a night-time satellite map, you can see that in the vast Esrange area, it is all dark. Obviously, the flight traffic up here is also sparse,” Ms Lagerqvist adds.
NIB on board
The first phases of the development project called “New Esrange” are partly financed with a SEK 100 million loan (EUR 11 million) from NIB. Åse Lagerqvist says that the financing solution was a good match from several perspectives.
“One strong factor is that NIB works in the Nordic region, and this project will strengthen this region from an infrastructure and market development perspective. The other thing is that NIB provides long-term lending, which is very important for us since the space industry works on an extremely long-term basis. For example, when we start building new launch capacity, it will be at least five years before it is up and running.”
“And when working with the NIB team, we also felt that you have taken the time to really understand our business and the complexity of what we are working with. The market for space technology and space access is quite different from anything else,” Ms Lagerqvist points out.
Looking to the future
The global space industry is expected to grow in the coming years, due to an increasing number of satellite networks and services, such as Google making new, satellite-driven service available online to everyone. Swedish Space Corporation sees its role evolving as part of this rapidly growing industry.
“I think we will become even more international and work in an even more international environment, says Ms Lagerqvist. “Almost all our customers are from other countries, or are collaborations between different countries. The New Esrange project will help us to keep our position as an important player in the market, but also to grow.”
“Smaller satellites will definitely be the concept of the future, and they will be launched in higher numbers, which means more launch capacity must be available. This will be the focus at New Esrange,” she concludes, as we round off our tour of the space centre.
The snow is still falling as we thank our hosts and drive back to Kiruna. We leave behind us the antennas stretching over the forest landscape towards the dark night sky, continuing their round-the-clock silent work of communication with satellites orbiting earth.
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