From satellites to spin-offs, Dutch space industry is enterprising
Earth-orbiting satellites in outer space are playing an increasingly important role in our everyday lives here on planet Earth. We navigate to our destination guided by satellites, we monitor the health of our planet from space, observe weather systems and obtain news and data from all over the world via satellites, and space telescopes peer into the far-reaches of the universe to unravel the secrets of stars and planets.
Image: Source: Ministry of General affairs
Leading role in space research
Since mankind's first missions into space, back in the 1950s, the Netherlands has played a leading role in space research, and our space technology has often formed an essential contribution to international space missions. Nowadays, a growing number of innovative Dutch companies are discovering the wealth of possibilities that space offers for applications in daily life, in addition to contributing to the quality of life for many on the planet.
Long view of history
The Netherlands has a long and distinguished history in astronomy that began with Hans Lippershey, who invented and patented the telescope more than 400 years ago, and saw astronomers like fellow Dutchman Christiaan Huygens contribute greatly to our understanding of the universe. The Netherlands has continued to play a strong role in astronomy ever since, providing essential technology for development of huge telescopes like the VLTI in the Atacama Desert and the European – Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Most recently, Dutch telescope expertise was used onboard Herschel, the largest space telescope in orbit today. The successor to the renowned Hubble telescope, the James Watt telescope, also features Dutch engineering. It is somehow rather fitting that the European Space Agency ESA located its technical headquarters (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, here in the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is home to a world-class knowledge base in astrophysics as well as in atmospheric research. Space activities in the Netherlands encompass a broad spectrum of scientific endeavours, space data uses, and industrial product developments. GOME, Sciamachy and OMI are just a few of the successful Earth observation instruments developed by Dutch scientists. They have considerably enriched our knowledge of the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and the related processes.
Sentinel-1 & Sentinel-2
Leading space company in the Netherlands, Dutch Space, are providing the solar panels for the Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites: part of the international Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program of the European Union and ESA.Sentinel-1 is a radar satellite and will continuously provide critical data for operational services such as environmental observation. The Sentinel-2 satellite will continuously provide high-resolution images delivered in different bandwidths. Every ten days the satellite scans any point on Earth. The company has also recently been contracted to deliver solar panels for eight Gallileo satellites.
Back in 2012, Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers was on his second ESA mission at the International Space Station (ISS). After spending 193 days at the International Space Station, André Kuipers returned to Earth on July 1st, 2012. It was the longest space journey ever made by a European. Anton Kuipers' research work is contributing to the further understanding of our planet.
Water management from space
The Netherlands has also been a leader in technologies that aid water management, giving it a leading perspective on the use of satellite data for improving life on Earth. From the 1960’s onwards, the Dutch applied ground-based knowledge of the Earth and the atmosphere to the evolving space sector, developing instruments for Earth observation and astronomy.
17,000 kilometres of dykes in the Netherlands
A prime example of this is the system for monitoring the Dutch dykes that was developed by Ramon Hanssen, Professor of Earth Observation at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). There are 17,000 kilometres of dykes in the Netherlands. Of these, 5,000 kilometres protect the country from threat of flooding from the sea and the major rivers. It would be very costly and time-consuming to inspect all of these frequently from the ground. Using the radar images from the European Earth Observation Satellites, Envisat and ERS-2, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) can monitor the integrity of the dykes remotely, every day, with millimetre accuracy.(High tech flood protection)
High tech agriculture
A satellite in space sees much more than we humans can with the naked eye. It sees not only light in the visible spectrum, but also, for example, infrared rays. A combination of the two allows farmers to assess the state of a crop very precisely and answer such questions as: 'Is the grain sufficiently watered?', 'How much nitrogen do the onions contain?', 'How many kilograms of potatoes will this field yield?'. Thanks to satellite data these parameters can be determined, together with an additional seven variables, to an accuracy of ten by ten metres. It took six years to develop and test www.fieldlook.com. The result is a low-threshold, yield-prediction instrument that farmers can subscribe to. They can use the resulting data to determine exactly which fields or crops need more fertiliser or water. This is not only more efficient, it is also better for the environment because farmers do not use more water and fertiliser than is strictly necessary. Actually, fieldlook.com is just one link in a whole chain referred to as ‘precision agriculture’.
The Fieldlook system
Shortage of physical space in the Netherlands leads to some of the most efficient and productive agricultural businesses in the world. Today, farmers receive advice based upon satellite data. In the near future it may also become possible to devise a fully automatic way of applying satellite data directly to automated dosage systems, guaranteeing farmers the optimum harvest for any given location. The fieldlook system is also helping farmers in developing countries to obtain micro-credit to sustain their fledgling agri-businesses due to the predictability of crop yields. This, in turn, helps sustain fragile rural communities.
Space technology spin-offs are not usually ready-to-use products that one can find on the shelves of the local department store. Often they represent a new piece of technology or are part of a new method. One example is the solar panels of the extremely successful Nuna solar-powered vehicles – winners of the prestigious Solar Challenge race four times in-a-row. These pioneering research vehicles were engineered using knowledge gained during ESA’s SMART-1 mission to the Moon. Many technology spin-offs also find applications in the medical sector. Materials created to protect astronauts from UV radiation during a space walk are used to protect patients suffering from the rare disorder XP (oversensitivity to sunlight). High tech coatings used on the SILEX communication system on board the Artemis satellite are also used in endoscopes – cameras that are inserted into the body via a small hole during an operation.
National database for satellite images
The Dutch Ministry for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation announced the creation of a national database for satellite images that will be available to the public and entrepreneurs.The satellite image database will centrally procure images and then make them public cheaply and quickly. Minister Verhagen for Economic Affairs stressed the importance of open data for economic growth: "We can more often provide data freely. With that data, smart entrepreneurs can create new markets and boost the economy."