Finland’s New Private-Sector-Driven Space Race
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Finland is emerging as a major space player – and its start-ups are sourcing astronauts by app.
By Fiona Zublin
Finland has never put a person on the moon — or even in orbit. For years, it piggybacked on NASA missions, projects of the France-led European Space Agency (ESA) and other space programs around the world. But now it’s looking to the sky on its own. The launch of its first satellite, the Aalto-1, last year, was just the starting shot marking the entry of the latest player to join an intensifying new global race into space.
It’s a goal that is spawning a complex ecosystem of scientific programs, startups and government funding and regulation in Finland. Some startups are focused on using space applications for traditional earthly needs — Collective Crunch, for example, uses space-sourced data to survey forests and improve the efficiency of Finland’s logging industry. Others are feeding the public’s imagination by trying wild ideas, some of which may just work. Take Space Nation, another Finnish startup, which is backed by a €3.4 million (about $4 million) crowdfunding campaign. It’s an app that sets regular challenges for users to test (and improve) their aptitude for life in space. Eventually, the plan is to send those who do best on the app to real-life astronaut boot camps — and then send one lucky champion per year to space for real, starting next year. The ESA, which is funding Collective Crunch, plans to fund five more Finnish startups by year’s end and 10 every year thereafter.
We here in Finland want to take a bit more risk.
Kimmo Isbjörnssund, ESA Business Innovation Center
In January, Finland’s government passed its first piece of space legislation, which regulates satellite operations and licensing for Finnish citizens. It’s regulation that will become more important as Finnish companies gear up to send more gadgets — and possibly people — into space. The country is also clear it isn’t just retreading the path taken by earlier space-faring nations. Instead, it’s looking to fill gaps in research and market needs, with bold moves.
Last year, a consortium of the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, the University of Turku and the Finnish Meteorological Institute banded together to create the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research of Sustainable Space. In layman’s terms, it’s hoping to solve one of those problems that are life-and-death and kind of boring at the same time: space debris. And while most people using Space Nation won’t end up getting a free trip into orbit, co-founder Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola says part of the point of the app is to give regular people an experience of being in space — and to help them engage on a personal level both with the experiences of astronauts and the realities of space.
“We here in Finland,” says Kimmo Isbjörnssund of the ESA Business Innovation Center, “want to take a bit more risk.”
Finland isn’t new to space research. It began its space research program in the 1960s, offering analysis, technology and the occasional instrument to missions from other nations. Already, 25 percent of Finnish companies use space data or technology in some way, accounting for more than $25 billion in yearly turnover. But the little country never had the wherewithal to build huge satellites. As the nanosatellite revolution takes off, this may be Finland’s moment. “We’ve had to start from smaller, so nanosatellites have been a natural way forward,” explains Isbjörnssund. “You can do it cheaply, test it cheaply, fail cheaply.”
The increasing focus on a possible low-Earth-orbit economy — with hotels, factories and resorts — is also opening up new economic opportunities. Some Finnish startups, such as Space Nation, eventually hope to tap this market, much like other nations with more recent space programs like the United Arab Emirates. “The rich people who pay for that vacation aren’t going to make their own cocktails, make their own bed,” says Space Nation co-founder Mazdak Nassir.
He envisions the startup as a training ground for those international cocktail servers, pointing out that while astronauts have to be peak specimens with extraordinary amounts of knowledge, people who take a commercial jetliner don’t need to know anything about how to fly a plane. Nassir and Vähä-Jaakkola also hope educating people about space technologies for agriculture, waste disposal and everyday living can encourage adoption of some of those technologies here on Earth, thus creating a more sustainable world.
The consortium of academic and research institutions formed last year is also making sure sustainability remains a key theme in Finland’s space sector. In space, a one-gram particle of debris hitting a communications satellite has the same momentum as a half-pound rock hitting a car windshield, explains physics professor Minna Palmroth of the University of Helsinki.
“That means there’s a bull’s-eye on the window of the International Space Station,” she adds. The low Earth orbit is filled with space debris: old spacecraft and satellites, often no longer controlled by any entity on Earth, slowly breaking apart and turning into a series of projectiles that, Palmroth says, lead to 19,000 near misses a week. “There’s no working solution,” she says. “The one who invents this solution is going to be important — and rich. There’s a market.”