Athens, Greece – January 31st 2016,
An article published in “K” magazine, circulated with KATHIMERINI newspaper, on Sunday January 31st, concerning European Sensor Systems (EES) and the Greek Space Industry growth, written by Tassoula Eptakoili.
We are visiting the European Sensor Systems (ESS) premises in Koropi, and we are standing right outside the “clean room”. The“clean room” is specifically designed and sterilized, and is a 10.000 class, meaning it does not contain more than 10.000 micro particles of dust. Our photographer in order to enter should make a special preparation: he should wear an apron, gloves, a cap, and he should also remove his shoes – so he does not pollute the laboratorial environment. This process is a daily routine for those who work in ESS and after all here an innovative product used for space applications, is produced here. That is what high technology is all about.
Welcome to the Greek Space Industry, which not only exists but rather it grows stronger and stronger despite the crisis and with a non-supportive government.
So now, let’s go back to the “clean room”. ESS’s engineers today they have toperform a final check to the microscopic pressure sensor they have designed before is handed over to the customer. This microscopic pressure sensor costs €10.000 Euros. Many could ask however, what is this sensor all about and what is it useful for? So, let’s describe it, as simply as we can. Every satellite sent to space carries a reservoir of extremely toxic fuel with a sensor which should be able to accurately measure its quantity. The measurements during the first year are 100% accurate. “As with the marriage, during the first year everything works perfect”, Dr. Emmamuel Zervakis, the General Director of ESS says bantering, and “Afterwards however, its precision declines”. This decline of the sensor’s precision could happen due to the extremely rough space environment conditions, with the radiation, the aging of the materials and many other harsh factors. Consider what happens 15 to 20 years later – the average life time of a satellite in space. Due to an incorrect measurement of the sensor, and an indication that the fuel ends, the operator must lead the satellite to Earth, and to get destroyed while entering the atmosphere, otherwise, the operator will not be able to move it and it will stay in space as “garbage”. In such a case the applicable fines are several millions of euros and if on the other hand, the fuel exists but the indication of the sensor is again wrong then the operator again will be forced to destroy the satellite unnecessarily, something that also will cost hundreds of millions of euros.
ESS, comes to give the solution with its own innovative and above all reliable sensors based on Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) technology and fabricated on silicon wafers. Indeed, ESS is the only company manufacturing such a product. How we got here? “It was our strategic choice to enter the Space Industry and to test our forces,” Mr. Zervakis explains. In 2007 we signed our first contract with the European Space Agency (European Space Agency – ESA). They were totally satisfied and recommended us to AIRBUS, one of the two European giants, along with THALES, operating in space missions. One contract led to another, so today we are their major supplier of pressure and acceleration sensors (during the launch of a satellite). It may sound simple, but it is not. “The certification process in order for ESA to buy anything from a company is incredibly complicated and demanding. For each material we use – even for the screws – ESA must know from what material are exactly made of, who is the supplier, and even its serial number. Everything must be written in detail. Therefore, in order to build a trust relationship with ESA, it takes time, money and dedication. For this reason, few try it and even fewer succeed.
Greeks in space
There is not only ESS, TELETEL produces hardware as well, which controls the smooth operation of satellites’ basic subsystems before launching as well as the hardware which controls their flight’s operation. Hellas SAT provides data and voice information transmission services to a large number of users all over the world. Prisma Electronics manufactures cables with special requirements for space use and INASCO composite structures which are used in space due to their light weight and their durability. And the list goes on. “Today, forty companies are dealing with space” Mr. Potsis, President of the Hellenic Association of Space Industry (HASI), informs me. “The budget overcomes 200 million euros per year, and 5.000 employees are occupied and their products are 99.9% exported!” A success story, unfortunately unknown to the public…
Let’s take things though from the beginning. Our country became a member of ESA (European Space Agency) in 2005, right after the Olympic Games which were held in Athens (August 2004). The annual subscription fee is 10 million euros, no doubt, a huge amount of money. “However, there is a particularity. Based on ESA’s statute the 90% of the subscription fee is returned back to Greece in a form of industrial work”. In the mid of 2000’s decade the Greek industrial work was at the minimum. “We hadn’t realize this when we first entered ESA” Mr. Potsis explains. “We were thinking only the research part which was only the 5% of the budget. That is the reason that we as an Association, decided to take part in General Secretariat of Research and Technology”. This is and how about all this hi-tech industry is in the hands of the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Education. Unbelievable but yet Greek!
At that time, there were only a handful of small Greek companies occupied in Space. However, the new challenges brought more difficulties. “Our industry was built on zero bases, with companies focused on innovation, carrying nothing from the past. We all know that ESA is not playing games. When for example a mission to Planet Aris is prepared, it wants to take from you a reliable product which will perfectly work.
As time went by, the list of customers was expanding. China, Israel, Canada and India are some of the countries that have shown interest for the Greek space products. The companies’ efforts alone are not enough though, the Greek state has to finally realize the importance and dynamics of our space industry. “In order for our scientists to stay in Greece” as Mr. Potsis mentions. “The Ministry of Education cannot care only for the research institutes and the academic field. We have great scientists here, who are leaving our country and go for example to The Netherlands to build there an innovative product, and which Greece afterwards will have to buy it because it is needed. Isn’t this absurd?”
With no doubt it is. However, on behalf of the decision makers what is their reaction? “Our country is going through a very difficult period. When you visit a minister who has many and serious issues to solve and you start talking about space, will react as you are an alien! But this is the threshold that the Greek government needs to overcome: by looking towards the future and by paying attention to the people who can really make a difference… Indicative I will mention to you that in an exceptional year for the olive oil exports, it will not overcome the 600 million euros. We, without any support at all, we reach 200 million euros.” Mr. Potsis mentions a very characteristic crosstalk “ESA runs a financial start-up program and when we visited the General Secretariat of Research and Technology and we asked them for help in order to be part of it, their response was: In Greece we have plenty of Space companies and we do not need any more!”
What Hollande saw in Corallia?
What many of the Greek crucial decisions makers cannot understand, for French President Mr. Francois Hollande it is self-evident. Let alone the fact that THALES and AIRBUS are French companies…When the French President visited Athens last October, he requested to have a guided tour in Corallia, si-Cluster is their member – a dynamic and steady developing industrial innovative cluster in the field of space technology and application. There, he met with many new entrepreneurs, who are exporting high technology products. “The investment in space technology is a one way street”, says Mr. Emanuel Zervakis from ESS, who explained to Mr. Hollande how their pressure sensor operates. “It will bring multiple benefits. This is also confirmed by the statistics: every euro you invest in space will bring you back five euros. Do we have the luxury not to realize it?”