The New Space Race: Finland’s Final Frontier

Finnish scientists, entrepreneurs and government initiatives are taking the country on a rocket ride into orbit, but approaching the journey in very different ways.

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An astronaut disappearing into a cloud of sulphur gasses in Iceland, February 2018 / Credit: Hjörtur Smárason, Space Nation.

Finnish scientists, entrepreneurs and government initiatives are taking the country on a rocket ride into orbit, but approaching the journey in very different ways.

Now, people working in different parts of Finland’s growing space industries are hoping a new ‘space law’ which came into effect in January will help make it easier for Finns to boldly go where no Finn has gone before.

One Giant Leap For Mobile App Users

Growing up in a rural community in south west Finland, Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola looked up at the night sky, and dreamed of touching the stars.

Fast forward a few decades, and the company the 37-year old co-founded, Space Nation, now has plans to put people into space.

“I believe there are three pillars or drivers in humanity going to space, and one is technology, reusable rockets or miniature rockets, getting the costs down to make space more accessible. The second is the governments collaborating not just with each other but  with the commercial companies” Vähä-Jaakkola tells News Now Finland.

“The third thing is where we the people come into the picture. In order for all these things to happen and for us as a civilization to go into space you can’t do that without the public becoming engaged in it” he says.

Space Nation’s app is an astronaut training programme that teaches some of the skills that might be needed on a space mission. Although there’s a premium model with in-app purchases, users can still progress without buying into it.

The Helsinki-based company – which also has ‘office space’ on the International Space Station – will select some of the best trainees from the app each year and take them to a camp in Iceland for more field training with NASA experts.

Iceland Astronaut Training Camp

A remote, rocky corner of north east Iceland has been chosen as the location of the training camp, due to the unique geological environment that looks like landscapes on the Moon and Mars.

In fact, several of the astronauts sent to the moon in the 1960s trained in the region, including Neil Armstrong.

More recently, equipment for the Mars Rover mission to Mars was tested in the area’s red volcanic clay.

The most successful trainee from the Iceland programme will be sent into space on one of the sub-orbital flights being developed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company or the Blue Origin company. The aim is to have an ‘app astronaut’ on one of those space flights in 2019.

Later, there are ambitious plans to spend big money and send someone to the ISS.

“Basically there has been ten or more space tourists there in history and the prices have been some tens of millions of dollars. But we aim the first one to be there in 2022. So first we select the best candidate in spring next year, then we start the next astronaut programme” explains Vähä-Jaakkola.

So how does it all get funded, if the micro-payments in the app are optional? Of course Space Nation has investors, including Peter Vesterbacka, best known for his involvement in launching Angry Birds.

But the company also plans sponsorship and advertising around their Iceland astronaut training programme; plus premium content distribution, merchandising and licensing.

There’s a vision of Space Nation ‘experience parks’, with China an early target for their plans.

“The big thing we start now is the app, but there are a lot of spin-offs and licensing the Space Nation brand to bring a whole new variety of space experiences” says Vähä-Jaakkola.

“It’s an uncharted area, and it needs to happen” he adds.

Aalto University’s Constellation Class 

Finnish universities are also at the forefront of the space race, but taking a scientific approach to getting into orbit.

Miniature and micro-satellites packed with mission-specific technology offer a cheaper, lighter alternative to the tradition heavy satellites that have been launched from rockets or the space shuttle up to now.

“We are using new technology to make new science” explains Professor Esa Kallio from Aalto University‘s space science programme.

“Technology provides possibilities to make space missions much more fast and cheaper than before. And that is the reason why we have built three of our own cube satellites at Aalto University” he says.

Smaller satellites have been around since the 1960s, but the newest versions of the small satellite concept were developed at the beginning of the 21st century in the USA.

The size can be anything from 1kg to 10kg for nano satellites, and up to 100kg. But the normal range of the ‘work horse’ small satellites are about 2kg to 50kg, generally.

The Aalto University small satellite currently in orbit – it was launched as part of the Finland 100 celebrations in 2017 – is being used for space weather research, and can also take images of the cosmos.

Researchers believe there are lots of practical applications for mini satellites, especially if they are deployed together in a ‘constellation’ to link up and become more than the sum of their individual parts. And the latest advances have helped bring the costs down.

“Finland came fairly late to the game to build satellites […] but smaller institutions can now do space missions with limited funds” says Antti Kestela, the first person in Finland to get a PhD in cube satellite studies.

But putting a satellite into space still needs a launch vehicle, which are usually under national control, like Russia, China, India or the USA.

If Finnish institutions want to put their own small satellite into orbit they can buy a ticket on one of these launch vehicles, but they’ll be a secondary priority to the needs of the main satellite payload.

“Although we can buy a ticket to one of those launches from a national player that has the infrastructure to put our satellites into space, we can’t even chose our own orbit, we have to go along with whatever the big satellite customer chooses. It’s a limitation, but it’s just another technical limitation to overcome” explains Kestela.

Developing A Finnish Space Agency

One thing that Finland lacks is it’s own space agency like NASA, to coordinate projects, infrastructure, funding and policy across universities, private companies, individual experts and government departments.

That’s something even Sweden has, but Finland lacks.

“It’s been discussed for 25 years, and there’s not one central place to coordinate the Finnish space industry. It’s the reason why many space activities are spread around different ministries and organisations” says Professor Kallio.

The Ministry of Transport is currently looking at options to establish a Finnish space agency, and a new ‘space law‘ came into force in January this year, to try and regulate some of the many varied space-related activities in the country.

Researchers hope it means better access to funds, less red tape, and a clear operating environment for the space industry, which then helps attract potential new investment in Finnish space research.

Antti Kestela thinks it’s one small step in the right direction, especially if it helps with funding activities for scientists.

Business Finland has some new space programme, but we need more of that stuff, specifically targeted at space, where you could apply for funding and don’t have to compete with a ton of other tech proposals”.