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Turning theory into practice: the short story of the Estonian space race

Sometimes it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants that allows one to see further. Estonia is home to great minds who have shaped space science as we know it today.

The last decade has witnessed a real boom in cosmic matters: the country is a member of the European Space Agency, Estonia has sent its first nano-satellite into space and is using the latest knowledge to boost the space-related industry.

If you could travel back in time to the year 1987 in Soviet Estonia and ask kids about their common dream, most probably any boy would have answered that his biggest wish was to become a cosmonaut like Yuri Gagarin, who was the utmost hero of the era. Sure, local scientists had taken part in the Soviet space race since the sixties and, at the same time, these kids had their hands and mouths filled with a sweet and sour marmalade called “Kosmos”.

The producer of this well-known product was a factory in Põltsamaa, which provided innovative tube-food for Soviet cosmonauts. Funnily, decision-makers in Moscow were concerned about the Estonian language text written on the packages. ‘The men in the space are distressed enough and now they have to read German letters,’ officials said, ordering the aluminium tubes to be painted plain white.

But before Gagarin took off with Vostok in 1961, a long path of complex theories about space had to be written down. Some remarkable chapters of cosmology, replete with German influence, were put in black and white in the university town of Tartu. Since its opening in 1810, Tartu observatory, led by Friedrich G. W. Struve, became the most important observatory in the Russian Empire.

The separation of the Milky Way from Andromeda

‘Today every expert on the field gives recognition to the historical achievements of Tartu astronomers,’ says Elmo Tempel, senior researcher at Tartu Observatory (TO) and Estonian Space Research and Technology Centre. He refers to Ernst Julius Öpik, who determined the distance between Earth and Andromeda nebula back in 1918 and provided substantial evidence for galaxies existing beyond the Milky Way. With this breakthrough he preceded the American astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Another name Tempel wishes to emphasize is Jaan Einasto, an astrophysicist, whose team made a paradigm shift by discovering dark matter and the honeycomb structure of the universe. ‘In scientific terms our most important results are from cosmology, founded by Öpik, and from remote sensing of the Earth, which was founded by Juhan Ross,’ says Jaan Einasto, who at 88-years-old is still a very active scientist and a living example to many.

Tempel, who carries on their legacy has been the laureate of the Öpik stipend twice and received the Estonian National Science Award in the field of exact sciences this year. He focuses on galactic filaments, which are the largest known structures in the universe. The pursuit is to fully understand how filaments affect the observable properties of galaxies. On top of that, Tempel’s work has helped to decipher how galaxies spin and grow.

‘We have to combine the knowledge of cosmology and particle physics to study the character of dark matter,’ says Tempel, who considers space science to be a driving force behind the development of technology. To gather the knowledge into one place the Estonian National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics together with TO and University of Tartu (UT) founded the Centre of Excellence “Dark Side of the Universe” in 2016. The institution maintains close cooperation with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Martti Raidal, the leader of the centre, stands among the most cited Estonian scientists in the world. He says Estonians are participating in the CERN CMS experiment contributing to particle physics, while researchers from TO are taking an active part in the European Space Agency (of which Estonia has been a full member since 2015) missions and initiatives and plays along in the refinement of data algorithms for satellites such as Gaia, Planck and EUCLID.

Pioneers in Earth Observation

‘This year our remote sensing scientists celebrate the 35th anniversary of the book by J. Ross “The Radiation Regime and Architecture of Plant Stands”. This is considered a classic work all over the world in the field of radiative transfer in plant canopies and in other branches of plant optics,’ says Anu Reinart, director of Tartu Observatory. She adds that the book has inspired and influenced distinguished scientists over the decades and defined the theoretical bases for Earth Observation as we know it today.

The competence and international network of young scientists like Jan Pisek, Kaupo Voormansik, and Riho Vendt gives Estonia a solid role in participation with the EU programme Copernicus, but also helps to win ESA procurements. The team of TO space technology labs is now leading a consortium of five European partners, including enterprises, but also the famous National Physical Laboratory in the UK, to provide methodology for reference measurements of Copernicus Sentinel satellites.

Up and Up, No Matter What!

With the creation of the nano-satellite ESTCube-1, UT and TO along with their many partners became a true success story, accomplishing the dream of conducting the first Estonian space mission. The project cost around 100 000 euros and ESTCube-1 was the first satellite in the world to attempt to use an electric solar wind sail.

In May 2013, after six years of development by over a hundred students and scientists, this 1 kg satellite flew into space. Being part of the Estonian Student Satellite Programme, the aim of ESTCube-1 was to popularize science and engineering among students. It served as the basis for 48 research projects, five doctoral theses and has generated six spin-off companies to date.
‘ESTCube team supervisor Mart Noorma did a fantastic job with the students,’ says Estonian Academy of Sciences member Ene Ergma. The long time astronomer hints that creating nano-satellites is currently really hot stuff: ‘Estonian students could be very successful in this field.’ Luckily, the motivation of the youth has skyrocketed: the first satellite is now followed by ESTCube-2 and 3 projects that are led by Andris Slavinskis, the new leader of the TO space technology department, whose doctoral thesis was based on ESTCube-1 developments.

In 2014, Tallinn University of Technology (TUT) established Mektory Space Centre, where more than 15 academic supervisors and 40 students from various disciplines are involved in the Nano-satellite Programme. ‘We want to develop the university’s competence in aerospace technologies, making TUT better known on the playground. Our business-related fields have so far been remote-sensing technology and image processing,’ says the head of the centre Rauno Gordon.

While participating in various ESA projects, company Reach-U has created close collaboration with Mektory and TO. Reach-U is one of the most outstanding Estonian location based solutions, GIS and cartography company. ‘Lately we have focussed on forest monitoring to determine the characteristics and changes in the forest,’ tells Mattias Rennel, satellite remote sensing specialist at Reach-U.

Since scientists at TO are experts in the remote sensing of vegetation, inland water and atmosphere, researchers at UT and TUT use the satellite for marine monitoring. ‘The satellite data helps to map ice conditions, thus ships can navigate better and save on fuel. It is useful for weather forecasting and maritime spatial planning,” says senior research scientist at TUT, Rivo Uiboupin. His colleague Tiit Kutser from UT adds: “This is how we can detect oil spills, monitor potentially toxic algal bloom formations and movement, etc. It makes studying the surface of the Baltic Sea more convenient and cheaper.’

This article was supported by the European Union Regional Development Fund through the Estonian Research Council.

Tartu Observatory as a seedbed for new scientists

Heli Lätt, Tartu Observatory Visitor Centre, head of department

To popularize space science and technology, the TO Visitor Centre offers active learning programs for middle and high school students as well as for the continuous professional development of teachers, while also organizing various science based events. Our start in 2013 was met with very positive feedback from teachers and today many schools visit us on yearly basis.

We host different teachers from various areas; we educate teachers on space-related topics in general, while also trying to link information to their specific fields. Our centre is visited by more than 6000 pupils and 1000 adults annually. Occasionally high school students also visit us to pursue their research projects or to see how our scientists work. I believe that broadening the minds of the youth is the most important thing, after the success of ESTCube-1 and Estonian membership in ESA we have seen space topics become popular in our society and I think this has worked out really well.

But space is not only popular in Estonia. The new European Space Strategy that was made public in 2016 demonstrates that space technologies, data and services have become part of the daily lives of European citizens. And Estonia has significant role in it.

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