Latvia returns to the space race

  • 2011-11-17
  • By Aira Misa

RIGA - Latvia’s first satellite, the Venta-1, with its capacity to communicate with shipping fleets, is ready to be blasted into lower Earth orbit next year. The idea of developing this first satellite for Latvia originated back in 2007, when the ministers responsible for the space sector of the European Union member states took part in a meeting at the European Space Center in French Guiana to discuss space research in Europe. Latvia was represented by its ex-minister of Education and Science Tatjana Koke, and director of Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center (VIRAC) Dr. Juris Zagars.

Conceptually, it was clear to them that Latvia could participate in complex EU space projects; Latvia was also eager to renew its research in space technologies, which had earlier ground to a halt.
According to Zagars, Riga Technical University was also involved in the project, participating in the area of the use of new kinds of materials in the aeronautics field.

Latvia’s intention, however, was to develop this activity as an educational project, Dr. Juris Zagars said to The Baltic Times. “Venta-1 is part of an educational project framework, within which the students from Latvia study satellites, the principles of designing, building, launching, and also the purpose of using them,” he explained.
It can therefore be said that the satellite project was the brain-child of three people: Dr. Juris Zagars, Dana Reizniece-Ozola of Ventspils High Technology Park (VHTP), and Dr. Sc. Ing. Indulis Kalnins of the University of Bremen. The Venta-1 developers are VHTP, Technical University of Bremen and Ventspils University College, and the subcontractor is the German space technologies company OHB-Systems.

Getting the funding for the project fell to the City of Ventspils, which was ready to fund the project already from the start in 2007; it was also seeking to attract partners. With the help of ESOC (European Space Operation Center) in Darmstadt, Germany, VIRAC established contacts with the Technical University and OHB-Systems in Bremen to start negotiations on Venta-1’s development - a first in Latvia and the Baltics. By the end of 2007 the Ministry of Education and Science of Latvia assigned from the government the first part of funding for the project: 100,000 euros. This was to cover the costs related to technical performance, including new components, mechanical parts and other technologies.

The Agreement on Cooperation between the University of Latvia and Riga Technical University was then signed, providing an opportunity for about 20 students from Latvia to learn the nuts and bolts of satellite construction at the Technical University of Bremen. Although the students at the time did not have a solid background in space studies, their instructors in Bremen were impressed at the strong performance shown during the whole process. The economic crisis slowed cooperation between the universities, though, stated Zagars.

Development of Venta-1 began in 2008, when students from Ventspils University College started work in Bremen during study periods lasting several weeks at a time. Their day-to-day activities included software engineering and programming.
In 2009, Latvia found additional financing for the technical side of the project, including cooperation from specialist consultants. The total cost for the project is around 350,000 euros, of which 250,000 euros consists of the technical part, whereas the balance goes to finance the man-hours.

Venta-1 is thus seen primarily as an educational and engineering project. However, there is a commercial application for it in the future, one which involves technology in the shipping industry. Venta-1 is designed to receive, process and re-transmit radio signals transmitted by ships, so it can offer services to Latvian seaports once it’s up and running. Ships currently use a similar technology, though the Technical University of Bremen and Ventspils University College hope to develop new information products in the future.

The satellite’s construction is expected to be completed this year. Its launch will be financed mostly by Swedish AAC Microtec, as it also has one of their modules on board. The satellite’s weight is just 7.5 kilograms, though at an estimated cost of 25,000 euros per kilogram to launch, the total comes close to 200,000 euros to get it into the sky. Venta-1 is expected to be launched by an Indian or a Russian rocket.

“The future of Venta-1 is linked to the engineering projects involving the Software-Defined Radio system,” said the VIRAC director. Presently, the Baltic’s first-ever satellite offers a good possibility for researchers and students alike to develop aerospace skills, with an eye to future technologies and, possibly, cooperation with other space-advanced countries.