The upcoming meeting of European space ministers and the creation of the Spanish Agency force the government to speed up its space projects

Spain makes its way into ESA with Constelación Atlántica, Arrakihs and Spainsat NG

photo_camera PHOTO/Science Portugal - The Minister of Science, Diana Morant, accompanied by her Portuguese counterpart, Elvira Fortunato, stamps her signature on the agreement that endorses the conditions of cooperation between Spain and Portugal in the Atlantic Constellation

satellite projects have stepped on the accelerator: the so-called Constelación Atlántica, which will deploy 16 small platforms in space; the Spainsat NG, two large secure communications satellites; and the Arrakihs medium-sized scientific probe. 

The Atlantic Constellation is promoted by the commissioner of the Aerospace PERTE, Miguel Belló, and sponsored by Diana Morant's Ministry of Science and Innovation. The Spainsat NG programme has as its guarantor the director general of Hisdesat, Miguel Angel García Primo, who is backed by the head of the Ministry of Defence, Margarita Robles. The third initiative (Arrakihs) is led by Professor Rafael Guzmán, from the Institute of Physics of Cantabria, and is sponsored by the Centre for Technological Development and Innovation (CDTI), whose president is Teresa Riesgo.

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There are two main reasons why all of the above-mentioned have been urged to give a strong impetus to their respective plans. Firstly, to establish the necessary coordination functions to be assumed by the Spanish Space Agency, which is due to be created before the end of the year. Secondly, the meeting of the ministers of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Paris on 22 and 23 November, where its director general, the Austrian Josef Ashbacher, will put multi-million ambitions on the table and each of the 22 member states, including Spain, intends to show its strengths.  

Of the three projects, the most complex, the one with the tightest deadlines is the Atlantic Constellation. A cooperation initiative led by Spain and Portugal, it is financially supported by European funds from the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan allocated to Lisbon and Madrid, so the administrative and temporal conditions set by Brussels mean that its development is progressing against the clock.

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Fortunately, the project received a new boost at the 33rd Spanish-Portuguese summit held on 4 November, which brought together the Portuguese prime minister, Antonio Costa, the Spanish leader, Pedro Sanchez, and a limited number of ministers from both governments in the Portuguese town of Viana do Castelo.

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In the bilateral meeting, the Minister of Science, Diana Morant, and her Portuguese counterpart, Elvira Fortunato, have expanded the level of detail of the document signed at the summit in October 2021 in Trujillo (Cáceres). They have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to move forward as quickly as possible with the development and manufacturing of 16 high-resolution optical mini Earth observation satellites, all interconnected with each other.

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Both partners have reinforced their commitment that eight satellites will be manufactured and fully owned by Spain and eight by Portugal, which requires extreme coordination. For example, all 16 will have a similar size and external shape, will weigh between 20 and 30 kilos and will be positioned at an average altitude of 500 kilometres, the first in 2025

All of them will be produced under common standards, but some will incorporate different technologies so that they can be used in a wide variety of applications. Because among the main missions to be fulfilled by the Atlantic Constellation are those of monitoring marine biodiversity, reporting on the progress of land erosion, monitoring maritime traffic, anticipating the proliferation of fires and helping to react to adverse atmospheric phenomena.

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"What we need to do now is to synchronise the pace of work between the Spanish and Portuguese teams," say people close to the project. The Portuguese Space Agency, chaired by Ricardo Conde, has already selected the industrial consortium that will implement the Portuguese devices. It is led by Geosat and includes the manufacturer Open Cosmos. But Spain has not yet resolved the issue. It must speed up the pace and decide sooner rather than later on one of two alternatives: to put the industrial component out to competition through a public tender or to assign this task to ESA, which would speed up the process. 

While the Ministry of Science is considering the most appropriate and possible option, the government satellite services company, Hisdesat, announced on 4 November its agreement with Elon Musk's US launch company SpaceX - the new owner of Twitter - to place its new-generation communications satellites Spainsat NG-I and NG-II into orbit in 2024 and 2025, respectively

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Arrakihs begins its journey in space Europe 

The signing of the contract took place in Madrid between SpaceX's commercial director, Sean Pitt, and Hisdesat's general manager, Miguel Ángel García Primo, who stressed that the Falcón 9 launcher selected is the "most reliable on the market today". This is evidenced by its reliability rate of 98.92 & from a total of 188 flights performed & 186 successes since its maiden flight on 4 June 2010. The Falcon 9 already launched Hisdesat's Paz satellite into orbit in February 2018. 

The terms of the contract with SpaceX offer Hisdesat the guarantee that each large, heavy satellite of around 5 tonnes has a space reservation to fly into space, which is saying a lot in a market collapsed by growing demand and limited supply of rockets. The deal with SpaceX ensures that liftoff can take place from either of Elon Musk's two launch complexes at Cape Canaveral (Florida), one in the military zone and the other in the area dedicated to NASA and commercial flights

The Spainsat NG design passed its critical review in December and is now in the manufacturing phase. At a cost of around 750 million euros, the prime contractor is Airbus Defence & Space System. Its Spanish subsidiary is responsible for the X-band equipment and Thales Alenia Space España for the UHF and military Ka-band equipment. With protection against interference, spoofing attempts and the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions, they have a transparent digital processor on board, which in practice makes them "software-defined satellites", Hisdesat points out.

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The third project that has received the go-ahead is multinational in nature and is called Arrakihs. It is an ESA-flagged mission, the importance of which for the international scientific community was defended by Cecilia Hernández (CDTI), the Spanish delegate to the Agency's Scientific Committee. Arrakihs was the only mission approved at the Committee's meeting on 2 November, in competition with 19 other proposals from different countries.  

The first ESA science mission led by Spain, for the head of ESA's Science Directorate, German Professor Günther Hasinger, Arrakihs is an "imaginative and innovative" proposal, whose main objective is to "locate and decipher how dark matter, which appears to be up to five times more abundant than the ordinary matter that makes up planets, stars and galaxies, forms and evolves". Juan Tomas Hernani's Spanish company Satlantis has designed the advanced visible and infrared camera that will be mounted on Arrakihs' telescope

Weighing nearly 300 kilos, with a maximum industrial cost of 175 million euros and planned to take off in 2030, the scientific part of Arrakihs involves a consortium of research centres from Austria, Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Switzerland under the coordination of the Institute of Physics of Cantabria.

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