Watching the Ships Go By, From Space

Jochen Harms (Credit: Luxembourg Space Agency)

Luxembourg Space Agency Q&A

LuxSpace CEO, Jochen Harms, on putting the ESAIL microsatellite into orbit

As CEO of LuxSpace, how do you feel in the weeks leading up to the launch of your ESAIL satellite?

I think we are all extremely happy that the project is finally coming to fruition, but we are also a bit nervous about the launch.

It’s an exceptional moment because ‘things’ can happen during a launch. Five years work can succeed or fail in a single moment.

Just shipping the satellite from Luxembourg to its launch site must have been difficult?

The launch site is in French Guiana, so getting ESAIL there in perfect condition required quite a lot of work. A special container had to be designed and built, there were a lot of fine details to be considered.

The container had an interface ring which secures the satellite to the container. This is also the interface to the rocket which will propel it into space.

Happily, everything went well and the satellite is now being prepped at the launch site.

ESAIL is a landmark project for LuxSpace, what were some of the challenges you faced in building your first micro-satellite?

Well, the construction of a satellite, even though it’s not a big satellite, is a complex thing that demands a lot of engineering capabilities. It involves many hours, and a lot of night work.

This is completely different from other applications. For example, if the software isn’t working on a non-space project, you can just say, “Okay, if this function doesn’t work, I will do it differently.”

When you’re working satellites, everything must work together, perfectly. Particularly between hardware and software.

On top of that, if you have a serious customer who is looking to see that everything is working as it should, it can be quite high pressure.

Is this the first satellite of this type that has been produced and assembled in Luxembourg?

Of this size, yes. Previously, LuxSpace built two satellites for commercial customers. ESAIL has been built for exactEarth, as part of ESA’s SAT-AIS program, which is all about maritime safety.

We’ve been working very closely with the European Space Agency (ESA), they’ve supported us from the beginning, as has the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA), they’ve both been important in helping us to make ESAIL a reality.

Building this satellite here in Luxembourg must have required quite a lot of specialised know-how?

We had already built two satellites in Luxembourg and this is the third one. ESAIL is really small but it is still larger and more complex than those first two.

Our team has almost 60 people, and engineers learn from each manufacturing process. So, this project has given us the possibility of building even more complex satellites.

This particular satellite is for maritime use, how does it work, exactly?

So, a ship will broadcast a message for any other ships nearby, saying, “I’m here, I’m going in this direction, with this speed” and so on.

The other ships can hear this, and automatically change their direction and speed using the signal. Around 15 years ago, someone said, “Why don’t we listen to these signals from space?”

That is what we do. We listen to the anti-collision systems of ships at sea and we sell this data to the European Maritime Safety Agency and private companies who are interested in monitoring ships.

Can you see all the ships or only some?

Any ship above 300 tons will have an anti-collision system. This is not a very big ship, perhaps 50 meters long.

This is an IMO, International Maritime Organization, standard. So, they need to have it. Of course, they can switch it off. And some do. There’s nobody who can tell a ship owner to switch it on. But usually, you have it on for the same reason that you wouldn’t drive a car at night without headlights.

With ESAIL about to launch, what are your next steps? The Triton-X project sounds exciting.

Triton-X is a new, more advanced satellite platform, with more advanced electronics. It’s also designed to be more affordable and durable. So it will have an orbital life of six years. It incorporates all the lessons we’ve learned over the last decade.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve been trying to overcome with Triton-X?            

Usually, it takes so long to build a satellite that, by the time you’re finished, electronics have advanced so much that you can’t buy the components anymore!

We learned a lot from ESAIL, and from ESA. Triton-X is the fruit of all this learning – a satellite that is flexible, modular and affordable.

ESAIL was very much oriented towards a specific mission but we are now trying to make the platform broader, and more repeatable. But, once again, it’s a learning curve.

Besides the microsatellites, could you outline some of your other activities?

At the moment, we have three major lines. The first is the micro-satellites. The second is the electronic products, and the third one is applications and services.

That last one is specifically interesting because it’s commercial. It’s purely commercial and we earn money from it. For example, AIS shipping data, we have several million per year in turnover.

We also do some Earth observation work in Luxembourg. I think right now, we do clear cut mapping for the Luxembourg Nature and Forest Agency. This is a small project, but, in the past 10 years we have also worked on some pretty big programs for the statistical office of the European Union, doing environmental monitoring.