Thanks to the efforts of the Belgian Science Policy (BELSPO), and largely via the R&D activities of the European Space Agency, Belgian industry plays a significant role within the European space sector. As a matter of fact, Belgium is the second largest contributor/inhabitant to ESA in Europe, before Germany!
A large network of enterprises and recognized know-how
Wallonia is the French-speaking region of Belgium that is host to the largest number of companies working in aeronautics of the whole country. Walloon companies are involved in every aspect of the space industry. They design, build and test the satellites and their payload. They help build the rockets that send the satellites into orbit; and they analyse and commercialise the data sent back to Earth.
The space industry in Wallonia has deep roots, building on a long history of engineering in the region and its complementary strength in civil aviation. But it is also driven by the Belgian state’s commitment to space at the European level. The federal government this year confirmed that it would add €250 million to its €1.2 billion contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA) from 2020 to 2024. This secures Belgium’s position as the sixth largest contributor to ESA’s budget, after France, Germany, Italy, the UK and Spain.
“Belgium is the biggest of Europe’ small countries in regards to the space sector,” uses to say Michel Stassart, deputy director in charge of the space sector at Skywin, the industrial cluster that supports the aerospace industry in Wallonia.
Skywin, the Wallonia-Belgium aerospace cluster
Skywin has more than 150 members, bringing together companies, research centres, universities and training centres working in the space sector in Wallonia.
This partnership process is aimed at revealing synergies around common innovative projects with a view to creating but also maintaining jobs in the sector's companies.
Cutting-edge research centers and universities
Via 4 dedicated research centres, the Walloon universities participate widely in the success and excellence of the aeronautics and space sector.
More than 80 university departments address the subject of aeronautics and space. Those centers of space activity contribute to the sector's development through the quality of their research and innovation programmes.
Walloon government authorities have decided to help companies based in Wallonia to improve their competitiveness by investing in research and innovation. This vast activity devoted to R&D is also financially supported by concrete and effective assistance, such as financial subsidies or advances granted by the Walloon authorities (up to 80%!) and fiscal advantages for researchers and regarding patents. Belgium actually counts 11,5 researchers per 1000 inhabitants, compared to 10 in FR, 9 in D and NL, 8,9 in CH.
In 2019 alone, 2.64% of the budget went to R&D activities (while only 2.08% in the rest of EU!). The Federal Gouvernment spends 584 million € to finance R&D. More than half is assigned to support international actions, mainly in the space sector.
4 hubs of space activity
Liège has a historical concentration of companies such as AMOS, SpaceBel, Safran Aero Boosters and Deltatec, along with the university’s Centre Spatial de Liège (CSL). The centre plays a central role in two of the new Copernicus missions. For the Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Monitoring (CO2M) mission it will design, manufacture and validate the calibration unit for the instrument measuring the carbon dioxide density of the atmosphere. And for the Land Surface Temperature Monitoring (LSTM) mission, CSL will design and manufacture the instrument’s diffusers, used to calibrate the instrument while it is in orbit. CLS will also carry out the complete calibration tests for the whole instrument in one of our large optical test chambers.
Telescope GMT Amos
Another Copernicus success story is AMOS, specialized in optical systems deployed in space and in ground-based telescopes. AMOS will also be involved in the CO2M mission, building and assembling the telescope of the cloud imager, which will detect possible obstructions to the main instrument’s carbon dioxide readings. “We will make the optics, and also the structure to mount it in a small telescope,” explains Jean-Marc Defise, head of the space business line at the company.
A much more substantial contract involves the main instrument of the Copernicus Hyperspectral Imaging Mission for Environment (Chime). This mission will examine the surface of the Earth in a large number of narrowly defined optical and infrared wavelengths, providing information about the type and state of vegetation, soil characteristics, and so on. “For the Chime spectrometer, we are really at the heart of the instrument,” Defise says. AMOS has contributed to its design, and will build its high-accuracy optics along with its optomechanical structure, and possibly the diffraction grating that is crucial to its operation.
A second hub can be found around Charleroi, CENAERO, including large companies such as Thales Alenia Space Belgium and several aeronautical companies with an interest in space, such as Sabca and Sonaca.
Techspace Aero - Photo de Pascale Broze ©AWEX-WBI
A third hub, including Redu Space Services, Telespazio and the Galaxia Space Innovation incubator, has developed ground-based skills around ESA’s European Space Security and Education Centre at Redu, in the far south of Belgium.
Finally, a fourth hub is emerging in the New Space sector around UCLouvain university, with AerospaceLab and Lambda-X.
Picosecond by picosecond, researchers at the Liège Space Center (CSL) have been identifying and analysing stray light trajectories, which had until now limited the performance of space optical instruments. This is a world first which should revolutionize space imagery, carried out in partnership with the University of Strasbourg. This is not the first time a CSL accomplishment has caught the attention of the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the Chinese Space Agency (CNSA) or European space industry leaders. Thanks to the multi-layer coating technology developed in the Liège laboratories, which enables the precise selection of wavelengths for analysis in the ultra-violet spectrum, the SMILE mission (ESA + CNSA) can now study the northern lights more closely. This technology will also soon be used as part of a NASA mission.
Walloon innovators are making their presence felt in the New Space economy
Two Belgian companies making the leap into this New Space economy are AerospaceLab in Louvain-la-Neuve and SpaceBel in Liège, with the recent creation of its ScanWorld subsidiary.
SpaceBel’s core business is in satellite software, operating both on board and from the ground. It also has expertise in simulators, used to test satellite systems before they go into orbit and troubleshoot once they are there. This in turn has evolved into a complete design service for Earth observation. Where Chime will be one satellite carrying a high-resolution hyperspectral imager, SpaceBel wants to deploy a constellation of eight or nine small satellites, each carrying a medium-resolution hyperspectral imager.
The images will be less detailed, but the satellites will pass overhead more often, allowing them to spot situations developing week by week rather than over months. “To take the project forward, a new company, called ScanWorld, has been set up. Its customers will be companies, governments or agencies involved in agriculture, forestry, environmental management, and so on”.
Skywin is currently working to help more companies take advantage of the New Space market, either by developing fully integrated projects or by looking for opportunities as suppliers. As Scanworld illustrates, the first opportunities will be in microsatellites for Earth observation. “Microsatellites are a strength for Wallonia, mainly in the instruments on board, but also in different parts, such as electronics adapted to microsatellites and their instruments,” says Stassart.
But it will also be important to think about how the data from space can be commercialised more effectively. “To do that we have to avoid having people behind screens interpreting data. We need artificial intelligence, dedicated to Earth observation, and this will lower costs considerably.” This approach is being pursued by the startup AerospaceLab, based in Mont-Saint-Guibert. Last year it raised €11 million from both private and public investors to develop a constellation of Earth observation satellites and the artificial intelligence systems to turn their data into commercial applications. A more challenging goal is to foster a New Space approach for launchers, supplying companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin that are dramatically lowering the costs of putting people and objects into orbit.
Source : Invest in Wallonia and WAB (Wallonia Brussels Magazine) – Focus “The sky’s the limit” by Ian Mundell (Autumn 2020) & Liege space Center (Autumn 2021)