Poland in space in 2014

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The last year featured many important developments for the Polish space sector. Although for a long time the space related activities of Poland remained marginal,the last several years showed significant progress. 2014 was another very active year in space for Poland.

Recent news reports mentioned that Polish infrared sensors installed onboard the Curiosity Mars rover are being used to study the surface of the Red Planet. Since 2012 Poland has had three of its satellites launched and Polish students have enjoyed much success in international competitions.  These have been very unique activities, never achieved before by Polish entities.

Without doubt the decision to establish the Polish Space Agency (POLSA) – a separate government entity responsible for the space sector – has an important prestigious and political meaning. Having its own satellites places Poland into the growing number of countries “with an on-orbit presence”, and the country’s participation to various astronomical and astronautical programs further consolidates this position.

Some of the important Polish space developments are described in more detail below:

1. Establishing POLSA and the selection of Prof Marek Banaszkiewicz to lead the agency

Prof. Marek Banaszkiewicz

Prof. Marek Banaszkiewicz / Credit: Jarosław Jaworski

The draft of the act establishing POLSA was approved at the end of 2013. The first reading in the Sejm, the Polish lower chamber of Parliament, occurred in April 2014, and the second reading followed in July 2014. Later, the act was voted for and sent to the Senate, the upper chamber of the Parliament, for review. One of the passed changes based POLSA in Gdansk, in favour of the initial choice of Warsaw. Finally, Polish president Bronisław Komorowski signed the law establishing the Polish Space Agency on October 20th.

The press release from the Chancellery of the President states that the agency’s goal is “to conduct tasks in the field of space research and the use of this research for the technology development intended for the industry, state security and science”. This statement is important, as it shows that modern space utilization goes far beyond the scope of scientific research and is also important for other purposes – it is a key argument for the creation of POLSA, and further supports space technology development in Poland.

One month after the president’s signature, Prof Marek Banaszkiewicz was selected to lead POLSA. The 2015 budget provides 10M PLN for the first year of the fledgling agency.

2. Two years of Poland in ESA

Obrady Rady Ministerialnej ESA, 2 grudnia 2014, Luksemburg / ESA Ministerial Council 2014 / Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja, 2014

Obrady Rady Ministerialnej ESA, 2 grudnia 2014, Luksemburg / ESA Ministerial Council 2014 / Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja, 2014

Poland joined the European Space Agency (ESA) on the 19th of November 2012, as the third country from the post-socialist block, after the Czech Republic (2009) and Romania (2011). Prior to the membership several integration phases had been completed, such as: European Cooperating State (ECS) agreement in April 2007 or the five year Plan for European Cooperating States (PECS) in April 2008.

At the end of the PECS phase, during 2011-2012 Poland and ESA conducted the accession negotiations. The technical part of these negotiations concluded in February 2012. Later the final decision from the Polish Government was awaited, which initially elected not to join ESA for  economic reasons. However, due to the successful “Poland in ESA” action (and other similar activities) the situation changed.

Currently the Polish ESA membership contribution is about 29M EUR per year. Most of those funds should return to Poland in form of dedicated projects. Detailed statistics on the first two years of ESA membership are not available yet, but it is known that in the next year the membership contribution will increase slightly (due to e.g. the rise of the GDP, which is linked to the obligatory fee), which in turn will further develop advanced technologies in Poland. It is worth mentioning that ESA finances mainly sustainable projects, i.e. those which should result in entry to the European and global space market.

In 2013 and 2014 two dedicated calls for R&D projects and preparatory studies for Polish entities were announced. In both calls over 60 projects were selected, with a total budget surpassing 10M EUR. Those calls will be announced until 2017, when the Polish “transition period” in ESA will end.

Concurrently Polish organisations are competing with foreign organisations for other available ESA projects with notable success. Although the Polish ESA budget seems rather small when compared with the French or the German, it is already yielding financial return to Poland. One example of it is the rising interest of Polish companies in joining the space industry and increased investment into entities conducting space-related projects. Apart from ESA Polish entities also compete for space project funding within the Horizon 2020 (H2020) program lead by the European Commission. In 2014 the first SPACE call under the H2020 scheme was announced. The first projects headed by Polish leaders and partners begun on the 1st January 2015. .

On December 2nd 2014 an ESA Ministerial Council was held – the second with the active participation of Poland. This time the number of negotiation topics was limited, as the event mostly focused on the biggest ESA programs: the Ariane 6 rocket, participation to the International Space Station program and second ExoMars mission. These topics are most important for the three biggest contributors to ESA: Germany, France and Italy, and less important to Poland, which only takes part in the MREP-2 ESA Mars Research program.

A guest at the Ministerial Council was Ms Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the European Commissioner responsible for the EU space policy. Poland was represented at the council by the vice-minister of economy, Ms. Grażyna Henclewska. She presented the country’s position, that the priority of ESA and the EU should be a more effective and efficient cooperation between member states, while maintaining the autonomy of both organizations and its rules of conduct.

3. Poland joins ESO and LOFAR

Poland joins ESO! / Credits - ESO

Poland joins ESO! / Credits – ESO

In October 2014 Poland signed the accession act to the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is a leading scientific organisation conducting research of the Universe and undertaking advanced R&D projects related to astronomical observations, precise steering and advanced data analysis.

ESO utilises several astronomical telescopes enabling to observe and measure the Universe in many different wavelengths; ultraviolet, visible light, infrared and microwaves. In addition, it has begun the construction of the giant European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is predicted to increase our knowledge of the Universe, its beginnings and evolution.

By becoming a ESO member state Polish scientists are able to use those observatories. Poland is the last bigger European country to join ESO. The formal procedures between ESO and the Polish government started over three years ago, but the final accession act was signed in 2014.

Becoming a ESO member state is a very important event, as this organisation is currently one of the biggest astronomy centers and will thus it will strengthen the position of the Polish astronomical research. Also some technological development related to the need of hardware improvement and exchange, as well as a more efficient big data number analysis is now possible.

In the last year Poland also joined the Low-Frequency Array for Radio Astronomy (LOFAR) project. It is a multiantenna radio telescope using the radiowave interference phenomena. It was officially launched in 2010 and consists of 25,000 antennas divided into 36 stations across Europe.

LOFAR antennas survey the Universe by using little researched, very low frequencies. In June 2014 a meeting was held initiating the construction of three new radio astronomy stations within the system. The stations will be located in Poland. The construction will be managed by the POLFAR consortium (created in 2007) consisting of: the Jagiellonian University, the University of Warmia and Mazury, the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Nicolaus Copernicus University, the Zielona Góra University, the Copernicus Astronomy Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Szczecin University, the Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences and the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and and Poznań Supercomputing and Networking Center. The consortium has obtained a governmental grant for the stations’ construction worth about 26M PLN (6.1M EUR).

4. The Brite-PL Heweliusz mission launches

Heweliusz satellite on orbit - artist impression / Credits: CAMK, CBK /

Heweliusz satellite on orbit – artist impression / Credits: CAMK, CBK /

In November 2013 the Russian Dnepr rocket launched with a record number of 33 satellites into space (including the Polish Lem satellite), Poland became one of the countries having more than one satellite on orbit (the second was the student-built PW Sat). Less than one year after the launch of Lem, its brother satellite Heweliusz followed its footsteps.

Both satellites belong to an international nano-satellite BRITE constellation, which conducts research on the pulses of the most bright stars of our galaxy. Next to Poland, other project participating countries are Austria and Canada. The project leader is Sławomir Ruciński, a Polish astronomer at the University of Toronto. Both Heweliusz and Lem satellites were fully integrated in Poland at the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Heweliusz was launched onboard a Chinese CZ-4B rocket from the Taiyuan space centre in Northern China. The Polish satellite was a secondary payload next to the Chinese Gaofen-2 observation satellite. Initially the launch was to take place in December 2013, but an earlier CZ-4B launch just a few weeks before ended in failure, and a Chinese-Brazilian CBERS-3 satellite was lost. As a result of previous launch failure, the flight of CZ-4B with Heweliusz was delayed. A special Chinese commission was undertaken to investigate the launch failure and was completed in June 2014. The new launch dates was chosen as 10th of July, but a technical problem with the Gaofen-2 satellite was identified. In the end the launch took place on the 19th of August and the Polish payload was placed into orbit 14 minutes into the flight. Currently the mission has had no technical problems.

The BRITE satellites have high resolution wide-angle cameras (11 million pixels) and are currently the smallest space telescopes on orbit. The satellites have a cubical form, with lengths of 20 cm and a mass of 7 kg.. The main mission of each satellite is planned to last 2 years.

5. PW-Sat deorbited

PW-Sat burns in the atmosphere - 28.10.2014 / Credits:  SKA PW

PW-Sat burns in the atmosphere – 28.10.2014 / Credits: SKA PW

Before the BRITE satellites reached orbit Poland had already reached space. This is due to the work of a group of students from the Warsaw University of Technology, who constructed a student satellite and named it PW-Sat after its Alma Mater (Politechnika Warszawska). The satellite was of a CubeSat type, meaning a miniaturized satellite, with a volume less than 1 litre and mass about 1 kg. Although small in shape, inside there was an on-board computer, power supply, a communication module and a deployable tail. PW-Sat was inserted into orbit on the 13th of February 2012 onboard a Vega launch vehicle. The first signal was obtained one hour and ten minutes into the flight, and it was hailed as a big success. Later following work with PW-Sat on-orbit was started. The first weeks focused on listening to the satellite, which functioned without any issues, and it looked like the tail might be deployed soon. This did not happen – as in the initial work with PW-Sat too much energy was depleted from the satellite’s batteries. Further attempts to deploy the tail, which was supposed to demonstrate an accelerated payload deorbiting system, also failed.

PW-Sat disappeared from NORAD screens on the 28th of October 2014. This means that the satellite finished its mission after two years, eight months and 15 days after launch. One of the tasks of the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is to monitor the movement of satellites around the Earth.

Although the tail was not deployed, the mission can be seen as a success. PW_Sat was the first built, integrated and launched Polish satellite and Polish students participating to the project gained the experience enabling them to start work in governmental institutions and commercial space companies.

6. URC 2014 and ERC 2014

The URC rover competition was organized again in 2014. The year also marked the first ever such competition in Europe. The “Martian” University Rover Challenge (URC) is a student robotics competition organised in the Utah desert, US.

During the event both robots and participants compete in a variety of challenges, such as scientifically analysing rocks, simulating support for astronauts, driving through difficult terrain, surveying and servicing tasks, as well as repeating radio signals. The teams were also tasked with presenting their rover and explaining their reasoning for their respective construction decisions.

URC 2014 was held on the 29-31 of May. This year Poland was represented by four teams: Hyperion II (Technical University of Białystok), Ares (Students’ Space Association from the Technical University of Warsaw), PCZRoverTeam (Technical University of Częstochowa) and Legendary II (Technical University ot Rzeszów). Altogether 28 teams signed up for URC 2014.

Again the Polish teams were among the best. The competition was won by the Hyperion II Rover from the Technical University of Białystok, and third place was given to the team of Legendary II from the Technical University of Rzeszów. This is a continuation of previous’ years successes: in 2011 the winner was MAGMA 2 from the Technical University of Białystok and two years later it was the Hyperion Rover (also from the same university).

During the 5-7 of September the European Rover Challenge (ERC) was inaugurated near the city of Kielee, held in concert with the Humans in Space conference. The first edition of the challenge in Europe was organised by the Planet PR agency and Mars Society Poland. The event took place at the Regional Science and Technology Center in Podzamcze Chęcińskie.

Nine student teams competed at the event. The winner was the Scorpio Rover of the Technical University of Wroclaw, which outranked the other teams. Second place was given to the Impuls team from the Technical University of Kielce and third place to SSTLAB Lunar & Mars Rovers Team from Cairo University.

Special guests at the Humans in Space conference were Scott Hubbard (former NASA Ames director and the Mars Pathfinder mission initiator) and Robert Zubrin (the founder of the Mars Society and the engineer who proposed to use methane obtained from the Martian atmosphere to conduct a manned mission). For three days presentations were given on various aspects of human spaceflight.

7. Polish participation to the science mission of the Philae cometary lander

Phiale on 67P comet /  Credits - user Spacepoint z forum unmannedspaceflight

Philae on 67P comet / Credits – user Spacepoint z forum unmannedspaceflight

In our opinion, one of the most important events in spaceflight last year was the landing of Philae on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. Poland has also contributed to this unique, historical mission. They provided essential elements of the Multi-Purpose Sensor for Surface and Subsurface Science) (MUPUS) instrument place onboard Philae.

On the 12th of November Philae landed on the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This was the first attempt to land on a comet and it took a very surprising turn, as the lander took 2 hours to reach the surface.

Philae settled in a non-ideal position, tilted in the shadow of a cliff. The primary science package was operated for the first 55 hours, including the MUPUS penetrator instrument, which was constructed with the participation of engineers from the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences (CBK PAN) in Warsaw.

The task of MUPUS was to conduct measures of  the heat conductivity, the ground temperature profile, and the density and mechanical properties of the surface and subsurface material.

One of the most characteristic components of the MUPUS instrument (as well as the Philae lander) was the penetrator equipped with a hammering system named PEN-M. This component has a sharp-ended 37 cm cylinder constructed from fibreglass, and is linked with the upper part of the penetrator. PEN-M was constructed in CBK.

After the settled landing, the primary science mission was initiated. The penetrator was activated at the weakest of three standard power level settings. However the depth level sensor did not register any changes, so the penetrator was operated at the second, and later the third power setting. This failure prompted use of a special fourth power setting, which is significantly more powerful but risks damage to the instrument. However the fourth setting also did not yield results, which led to the determination that the top of the surface landing area is not composed of dust, but of frozen ice.

The initial results of the data collected from the Rosetta orbiter and Philae lander were presented in public during the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. On the 15th of November Philae ended its primary mission and entered a sleep mode due to the low level of available energy However it is possible that Philae can be awakened in March 2015, when the comet passes closer to the Sun.

(Kosmonauta.net with support from Jack Scott-Reeve)

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