A view of the Esrange Space Center, stretching over 5,200 square kilometres of wilderness in Swedish Lapland.
13 Jul 2022
Space is closer than you think
Ten countries in the world can launch a satellite into orbit. Sweden is soon to join this list – the Esrange Space Center in Swedish Lapland is set to become continental Europe’s first major satellite launching site. NIB is financing this strategic development and visited the centre to see how increased access to space will affect the industry – as well as all of us.
It is a few minutes past midnight, yet the sun is still high on the horizon as NASA is preparing to launch XL-Calibur – a stratospheric balloon used to research black holes and neutron stars. The site is nowhere near the coasts of the United States, with which many of us associate space missions. In fact, we are just a short drive from a small town called Kiruna in Sweden, where one of the world’s most versatile space centres is surrounded by nothing but hills, forests, lakes, and buzzing swarms of mosquitoes in the summer.
Around 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, the Esrange Space Center offers nearly perfect conditions for space exploration at this time of year. Easterly winds and virtually unlimited daylight are bringing even space giants like NASA to the very north of Sweden for their missions.
But it is not only the proximity to our own region that excites us about the new developments at Esrange. We are learning that the real closeness of space can be felt in our everyday lives.
Satellites – connecting people
“Many people don’t realise how much space infrastructure is used. To transport something today, everybody relies on GPS, which is based on space systems. No one really thinks about the fact that all new cars, transport links and logistics are built on it,” says Lennart Poromaa, Head of the Esrange Space Center, whom we meet at the site.
“It’s the same with communications. I think the next generation 6G network will use terrestrial and space infrastructure. That means that wherever you are on the planet, you’ll have access to the internet and communications,” he adds.
This expectation of being able to access anything, anywhere, anytime is increasingly the norm. We have come a long way, from SMS-ing our peers on early Nokias to Facetiming our international friends on smartphones in only a few decades. Many of these technological developments go hand in hand with the enhanced use of satellites.
In the coming years, the advances will continue even more rapidly. To accommodate the increased demand, more satellite launching capabilities will be needed. And at Esrange, the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) is working on just that.
In 2021, NIB provided the SSC with a twelve-year EUR 12 million loan for a new spaceport that will enable the company to launch satellites into orbit, making it the first such site on our continent.
Unlocking new potential
Becoming a launching state is not only a game changer for Sweden; it impacts the landscape of the entire European space industry. According to Poromaa, there is a huge lack of access to space, and opening new ways to reach orbit will be vital for building the infrastructure of the future. Some estimates suggest the number of satellites orbiting the Earth will grow from the current 4,000 to as much as 100,000 by 2030.
“The trend and the development in the space industry is that everything is shifting to becoming smaller and smaller. Satellites are now built on a weekly basis rather than the years of some time ago – they’re much smaller, but they can do much more,” says Poromaa, a space engineer himself, who has been working at the SSC since 1988.
Esrange will be ready to launch these small satellites by the end of this summer. The launchpad and clean rooms used for satellite integration are now being prepared for its first customers. Whoever they are, they should have peace of mind – although nothing is certain in space, combining the latest technology with the SSC’s fifty years’ experience of launching rockets and stratospheric balloons should guarantee their satellite will find its prospective position in orbit safely.
“A dedicated small satellite launcher business is like catching a taxi exactly where you need to, while using a bigger launcher mission for your satellite feels like taking a bus and then having to walk to your destination,” the Head of Esrange explains the capabilities that come with the new spaceport.
As we are leaving its construction site, a family of reindeer passes our way. According to our hosts, this is not an unusual sight – all kinds of local animals come to use the SSC’s infrastructure for the shade during the summer days.
Benefiting the Earth from space
Indeed, running into a reindeer or even an occasional bear on the Esrange territory should come as no surprise, given that it stretches over 5,200 square kilometres of unpopulated Arctic wilderness. That is roughly 1% of Sweden’s total land area – twenty-four times the size of Stockholm.
Having such a vast launch impact area requires the SSC to take extra care in preserving Lapland’s biodiversity. At the same time, it also enables the company to use its territories to further benefit the Earth.
Part of NIB’s latest loan has also been earmarked for the construction of two testbeds, enabling the testing and development of reusable rockets. This is the first rocket-testing facility in Europe. It is expected to contribute to greener space operations and more resource-efficient rocket construction, thus reducing the burden on the environment.
Those who think this might not be enough to compensate for the carbon footprint derived from the space launches may be interested to hear that in terms of the emissions, taking a rocket to space equals one flight from Stockholm to New York.
However, the largest positive impact on the environment by far comes from the space explorations themselves. The satellite data allows to locate and track the emissions as well as measure pollution. Earth observation helps governments, organisations and companies to streamline their operations, and can be decisive in mitigating climate change on our planet.
“From space, you can evaluate how sustainably we’re doing. It acts as a global eye – you can look from above and see where the Earth is developing in the right or wrong direction,” says Poromaa.
“Exploring space is therefore needed for the environment and its protection. All the problems the Earth faces because of how we human beings live our lives – they’re the things space can really contribute to solving,” he concludes.
After visiting Esrange, we understand why these human beings are so obsessed with space. Leaving the centre, we feel this is the closest we will ever get to it. That probably is not true. Space is already closer than we ever thought it was.