Swedish Space Exploration Then and Now

Astronaut Christer Fuglesang. Image © Nasa/ESA

By Peter Berlin

As an internationally recognized leader in cutting-edge technology, Sweden was bound to embark on space exploration sooner or later. In 1961 the first sounding rockets were launched from Swedish Lapland to investigate the nature of noctilucent clouds – those high-altitude clouds that look like giant flying saucers against the dark sky after sunset. A sounding rocket goes straight up into space before falling back to Earth, as opposed to a launch vehicle that sends satellites into orbit and space probes into interplanetary trajectories. Later the noctilucent research was widened to include the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). The interest in exploring the Northern Lights was motivated by scientific curiosity and the wish to understand why the phenomenon causes radio interference.

Since those early days, Sweden has launched a variety of space missions, sometimes alone but mostly as a member of the European Space Agency(ESA), the European equivalent of NASA. Through ESA, member states are able to pool their industrial and financial resources in order to pursue space ventures that would otherwise be far too costly for any one participating nation.

One of the most interesting ESA space missions was called Smart-1, with a Swedish company serving as the Prime Contractor. The Smart-1 spacecraft used cutting-edge electric propulsion to work its way to the moon over a period of 3 years.

ESA operates on the principle of “industrial return”, a concept which ensures that most of a member state’s financial contribution to a given space program is returned in the form of R&D contracts placed with industry in that country. This has the advantage that undertaking space missions also serves to further the competitiveness of European industry in the global marketplace.

Smart-1 en route for the moon. Graphic: ESA 

Over the years, Swedish industry has benefitted hugely from domestic as well as ESA-driven space activities. Notable examples are:

•    RUAG Space which is one of the world’s foremost builders of computers onboard satellites and rockets, i.e. the “brains” that enable spacecraft to function more or less autonomously.

•    OHB Sweden which provides hi-tech spacecraft electronics and specializes in building entire small satellites.

•    GKN Aerospace which manufactures key parts of the Ariane rocket engines.

•    Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) which operates a network of satellite ground stations and control centres to monitor and guide satellites by remote control. SSC is also in charge of launching high-altitude balloons and sounding rockets from its Esrange launch site for Swedish and international customers.

GKN Aerospace sandwich nozzle for Ariane 6. Photo courtesy of DLR

While OHB Sweden was still part of SSC, the company oversaw the construction and launch of several satellites. The first of these was called Viking, launched in 1986 to study the processes leading up to the appearance of the Northern Lights. The follow-on satellite Freja had similar goals and carried instruments provided by Swedish, German, Canadian and U.S. research institutes. The Northern Lights were also the focus of Astrid 1 and Astrid 2. Tele-X was a joint Nordic venture in satellite telecommunications from geostationary orbit, and Smart-1 was the mission to the Moon mentioned earlier. Odin is still alive and well in orbit; it combines two scientific disciplines on a single spacecraft, the first for studying star formation (astronomy) and the second for monitoring the depletion of the ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere (aeronomy). Lastly, Prisma is a pair of experimental satellites that has successfully demonstrated the technology needed for formation flying and docking in space.

Space is an important subject at many Swedish educational institutions. For example, the Kiruna-based Rymdgymnasiet introduces high school students to the fundamentals of space science and technology. The Space Department of the Luleå University of Technology is also in Kiruna. Here, students from many nations come together to work towards their Master’s degrees and Doctorates in a variety of space-related subjects. The students take advantage of the nearby state-run Institute of Space Physics (IRF) and the above-mentioned SSC to launch experiments, complete their internships and work on their graduate theses.

Some of the university students in Kiruna pursue their studies within the framework of state-sponsored programs that allow them to move every year between universities in different countries, all the while receiving full credits towards their degrees. Upon graduation, they are not only knowledgeable in their chosen space subjects, but they are also multilingual and multi-cultural – a superb prerequisite for making a career in one of the most cosmopolitan professions around.

Swedish ambitions in space go further than designing satellites and launching sounding rockets. In the October 2013 issue of Swedish Press we interviewed Karin Nilsdotter, CEO of Spaceport Sweden who reported on plans to take tourists into space from Esrange. Another project has been proposed to launch satellites directly into near-polar orbits, from where they can perform a variety of missions aimed at monitoring the health of our planet.

A sounding rocket lifts off from Esrange. Photo: DLR Picture

On the subject of saving our planet, it is worth remembering that spacecraft, despite their exorbitant cost, perform essential services that we now take for granted. The health of agriculture, forests, the oceans and the atmosphere is studied from space using cameras and radars. Modern-day weather forecasts owe most of their accuracy to meteorological satellites. Satellite navigation and other space systems allow us to know where we are on Earth down to 1-metre accuracy using inexpensive GPS receivers. TV programs from anywhere in the world may be enjoyed thanks to communication satellites, and our homeland security is supported by intelligence-gathering spacecraft. And, of course, our insatiable curiosity about the Universe and our planet’s origins is nourished by spectacular images captured by scientific spacecraft travelling – and sometimes touching down – in interplanetary space.

For Sweden, the focus has so far been on science, telecommunications and technology development. That said, a Swedish astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, has twice flown on the Space Shuttle to visit the International Space Station. As for sending humans to Mars, the Swedes have wisely adopted a wait-and-see stance.


Feature image: Astronaut Christer Fuglesang in his mission’s final spacewalk outside the International Space Station in 2009. Image © NASA/ESA