Can Portugal Steal the Next Space Race?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The small satellites market is booming. And Portugal's geography could make it a key player.
When Hurricane Dorian hit South Carolina last summer, houses got wrecked, creeks overflowed and the region flooded. But help came from an unlikely source on the other side of the Atlantic: Portugal. There, a small startup called Tesselo scoured satellite imagery with artificial intelligence-based algorithms, so that U.S. counties knew how to improve infrastructure in the future.
“We help counties 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 Tesselo, from sunny Lisbon.
If the Portuguese government has its way, we might soon be hearing a lot more stories like this. As the global space industry expands rapidly — it’s expected to grow from $360 billion in 2018 to $558 billion by 2026 — the southwest European nation is eyeing a slice of the pie.
Last year, Portugal 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.
We want to become a global authority on space.
Chiara Manfletti, president, Portugal Space
Portugal’s already looking for customers who might use the spaceport, expected to come up on the island of Santa Maria. It signed an agreement with China in Dec. 2018 to build jointly managed research centers that will produce micro-satellites for agricultural and oceanographic uses. The two countries will split the $57 million development costs. And back home, Portugal is holding grant contests for space startups, 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 takeoff.
And experts say this 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.”
Which could be important for Portugal, as it’s still recovering from the eurozone crisis of a few years back. “Space is one of the sectors with the most future potential,” says 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 use cases where sustainability and space interact.
Tesselo is an excellent example of the type of company 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 Portuguese goals, like sustainability. “We use Tesselo for protecting and managing forests,” says Charpentier. “By using our algorithms on satellite imagery, we can look at rates of deforestation anywhere in the world.”
The company is also an example of how the Portuguese effort is supported by the broader European space program. Tesselo has received grants from ESA 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.”
Portuguese decision-makers 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 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. The U.S. and India already dominate the market. “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.”
For Manfletti, the challenges for now are closer to home. Her agency was founded only in March of this year, and she has to set up the entire organization. “It’s like running a startup,” she says, laughing. But if this startup space agency can kick-start Portugal’s real space startups, they might be reaching for the stars soon.