Raphaël Liégeois, following in the footsteps of Dirk Frimout and Frank De Winne, has become the 3rd Belgian astronaut to be selected by the European Space Agency (ESA). Three names that illustrate Belgium's importance in the space sector over the decades. Today, the country is the 5th largest contributor to ESA.
This commitment means that we can count on a high-performance scientific and industrial base, thanks to the returns on investment provided for as part of our "best practice" with ESA. In fact, for those who don't know, for every euro the federal authorities invest in ESA programmes, industrial and scientific players generally record one euro in direct contracts from ESA, generating a leverage effect. "The latter is often estimated at 3 or 4 euros of direct return on this one-euro investment," as Thomas Dermine, Federal State Secretary for Economic Recovery and Strategic Investments, in charge of Science Policy and in particular of the federal budget for ESA, recently reminded us.
In this context and after being present in the sector for over 65 years, Wallonia is the country's historic player, as confirmed by Michel Stassart, Deputy Managing Director of Skywin, the Walloon competitiveness cluster focused on aeronautics and space: "The sector exports 90% of its turnover. We have over 40 top-rated players worldwide. It represents around 2,000 direct jobs and a turnover of 300 million euros. If you divide Belgium's contribution by the number of residents, we're second on the list of countries who've invested the most."
Major projects and coordination
The Skywin cluster brings together companies, research centres, universities and training centres, enabling this sector to express itself to the full. Over the last 20 years, the Walloon space sector has more than tripled in terms of turnover and number of players. Jean-Pierre Chisogne, Senior Aerospace Specialist at the Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX), confirms these roots: "Today, we can count on 4 well-identified clusters: the historic clusters of Liège and Charleroi, plus Louvain-la-Neuve and the province of Luxembourg (Galaxia, ESA, Redu, etc.)." The European Commission selected the Galaxia site for the installation of the terrestrial maintenance platform for the Galileo constellation, a European satellite navigation system. And let's not forget the Space Safety programme, with the HERA and Cosmic projects in which many Walloon players are positioned. The site impressed the new Director-General of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, during his visit to Redu: "I'd like to develop the importance of this ESA site even further, as Belgium is an important country in the space sector," he emphasised, pointing out that investments in space cybersecurity worth 30 million euros will be made between now and 2025.
In the space sector, Wallonia's flagships are major players in Belgium and abroad: Thales Alenia Space (equipment for satellites and launchers) and Aerospacelab (Louvain-la-Neuve), which is currently building Europe's largest satellite factory in Charleroi. There's also Safran Aero Boosters in Herstal, as well as Spacebel (software), Amos in Liège (optical solutions) or Deltatec in Ans (electronic components for satellites), and not forgetting Scan World (one of Wallonia's leaders in the use of space data), Lambda-X (optics), etc.
As part of its responsibilities, the Skywin cluster is carrying out two projects that cut across the 7 segments up to 2025: supporting industrial and scientific research, and ensuring the creation of a New Space industrial sector in Wallonia by developing new tools and creating the climate needed to attract new investors.
Wallonia is also unique in that its activities cover the main segments of the space sector: "Ground tests, launchers, satellites and probes, satellite flight management, data reception, data processing and the development of services using earth observation or geo-positioning data, cybersecurity and space exploration... not forgetting training for students and young people," adds Jean-Pierre Chisogne. As Michel Stassart confirms, this is a unique asset: "We're working on both upstream segments (producing and launching satellites, collecting data, etc.) and downstream segments (providing services or data related to satellite earth observation, etc.). Finally, we must not forget that the space sector is also useful for our security and defence."
Wallonia isn't just working for Europe: "We have companies, research centres and universities involved in projects with NASA (Solar Orbiter). We're also working for other space agencies (India, Japan, etc.) and private companies around the world," adds Jean-Pierre Chisogne.
While the sector is currently performing well in the face of international competition, we need to ensure its sustainability. A Walloon space institute called JRI4Space (Joint Research Institute for Space) is set to be launched soon. It will bring together representatives from the universities of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, accredited research centres (Cenaero, Sirris and Multitel), the aerospace competitiveness cluster of Wallonia (Skywin) and a range of companies in the sector, with the aim of maximizing the synergy between "industrial needs and scientific offerings".
Finally, as Walloon Minister Willy Borsus recently reminded Parliament, Win4Excellence, the excellence programme for universities in collaboration with accredited research centres, with the aim of funding ambitious research with a strong upstream position, has been launched by the Walloon Government. To further support Walloon companies in their move towards Industry 4.0 and New Space, Skywin has also joined Digital Wallonia's Made Different programme, which supports manufacturing process-oriented innovations.
The future lies in New Space (from launcher reuse to Earth observation micro-satellites)
The region can also count on players who are investing in future launchers (built-in electronics, including backup chains, cryogenic regulated electric valves, built-in software and flight simulators, structural parts for launchers, etc.) and in the satellite constellation market. "We are working closely with the Walloon Government on American-style reusable launchers, not forgetting Earth observation with its cybersecurity element. Today, we need to be aware that we're in the midst of a major usage change in the space sector. For example, some automotive companies would like to have a satellite constellation (20-30 satellites) to manage their fleet. Demand is therefore strong and varied," explains Jean-Pierre Chisogne.
To ensure that all the players in the chain work well together, companies need highly-trained staff, as Michel Stassart explains: "In Wallonia, we have a wealth of academic skills and initiatives that means we can acquire excellent training. A Walloon or Belgian engineer in the field is highly regarded. Then, of course, we have to be able to retain our talent in the face of competition, or go abroad to find the best."
Attracting young people to the sector is part of the process: "The Euro Space Center plays a role here. Additionally, this is a sector where we're not just talking about planets and stars, but also about agriculture, land use, risk monitoring (flooding, etc.), complementarity with drones, forest and environmental management, etc. There are plenty of opportunities. There are no boundaries for actors in space. Manufacturers and academics work together."
A history of excellence: specific examples
Currently on the ground, the new subsidiary of Belgian aerospace flagship Sabca is carrying out a large-scale mission for the Group's strategy: to design and manufacture the activation systems of the future, so that they can be brought on board the New Space market. These are what give rockets their wings, as Sabca CEO Thibauld Jongen recently explained: "Our role as an equipment manufacturer is shifting towards that of a 'structurer' responsible for the overall design and manufacture, something that none of our competitors can currently offer their customers."
For its part, Amos, a leader in the large telescope market, has tested an innovative and autonomous "laser-guided adaptive optics" system called SALTO at ESA's Redu site, in collaboration with ULiège, the Liège Space Center and UCLouvain, to develop a system for correcting the effects of atmospheric turbulence.
Finally, we shouldn't forget that these companies are also part of a long-term strategy, like Thales Alenia Space, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary: "We're going to build for the future with significant technological advances in all areas of the satellite industry," said Emmanuel Terrasse, Vice President of Countries & Equipment at Thales Alenia Space, underlining his conviction that space brings a new dimension to humanity's efforts to build a better and more sustainable life on Earth.
As for Spacebel, the company has rapidly built up a solid reputation for its innovative software solutions (built-in flight control software for satellites and space vehicles, ground systems for control and mission centres, space data access systems, etc.). The company has been involved in the Columbus module of the International Space Station, the SPOT Earth observation satellites, the Altius "Made in Belgium" ozone layer monitor, the Vega launcher, the Hera planetary defence mission, and more. It should be pointed out that since 2015, Spacebel has been in charge of developing the Euclid Control and Data Management Unit Application Software, which will control the spacecraft and all its subsystems.
ULiège has also been heavily involved in the Juice space mission, which will study Jupiter and its moons. Juice is an ESA-led mission, with contributions from NASA, Jaxa (the Japanese space agency) and the Israel Space Agency. Above all, it is the first large-scale mission in ESA's Cosmic Vision programme. The Walloon sector is also collaborating with India, as demonstrated by the inauguration of the ILMT, a liquid mirror telescope located at the Devasthal Observatory (India). The telescope is part of the Belgo-Indian Network for Astronomy and Astrophysics (BINA).
Finally, players such as Cenaero, the Liege Space Center, and other research centres contribute to the sector's development through the quality of their research and innovation programmes. A case in point is Michaël Gillon, the man behind the discovery of the Trappist-1 exoplanetary system.
Links with Brussels
In the field, and depending on the project, we work with the Royal Observatory of Belgium, the Royal Meteorological Institute (IRM), the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (IASB), and more. We also mustn't forget companies like Veoware in Brussels... or Space Applications Services, in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe (robotics and 3D printing on the Moon).
For support in the process of identifying sources of funding for R&I and setting up projects, Walloon companies can turn to the triad of SPW EER (Technology Development and Research Department), NCP Wallonia and the Skywin competitiveness cluster.
By Vincent Liévin
This article is from Revue W+B no. 162.