Exclusive interview with István Sárhegyi, Founder and Chairman of New Space Industries Zrt.

István Sárhegyi, Founder and Chairman of New Space Industries Zrt., talks about his vision regarding space and what opportunities Hungary has in the field.

Since the beginning of Hungarian space activity, what were its first breakthroughs and what have been some of the biggest successes in recent years?

We can be proud that there has been space exploration in Hungary since the 1940s. We usually tie the first milestone to Zoltán Bay, who was the first in Europe to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon. The peak of Hungarian space research was the 1970s and 1980s when Hungary participated in Russia’s Interkosmos space program. The key moment was in 1980 when Bertalan Farkas went up in space. Hungary was the seventh nation to send a man into space. At that time, Hungary was dealing more with space exploration than the space industry.

Hungary has a fairly serious space heritage, which ensures that the country can claim a place in today’s New Space era. It is very difficult to enter the space industry as a new player, as there is a need to present previous results. In this respect, Hungary already has 40 years of knowledge, which gives us the opportunity to participate in further projects.

Unfortunately, there was a break in the 1990s when other areas were given priority during the regime change. There was some space activity in the 2000s and 2010s, but there were not really any breakthroughs. In 1990, the European Space Agency invited Hungary to be the first country in the CEE region to become a member of the European Space Agency, and finally in 2015, Hungary became a member of it. 

In 2018, space research was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where it received more attention. The space sector is in great need of diplomacy and international relations, and Orsolya Ferencz, as ministerial commissioner, does an excellent job with this.

The space sector is an ecosystem that consists of three elements: space research, space industry and space education. The difference between space research and space industry is that research primarily focuses on basic research, not on manufacturing. The space industry, meanwhile, entails manufacturing. There are Technology-Readiness Levels (TRL), and they indicate different stages of a project on a scale of one to nine. The first level is basic research, and the ninth is, say, the operation of a device in space. Up to TRL 3, research institutes operate, while from level 4, when prototyping starts, companies also show up. 

I am working to make this ecosystem work harmoniously in the private sector of Hungary.

Why is it a significant success that the TRITEL 3D silicon detector telescope will be part of the internal radiation measurement system of the Lunar Gateway space station orbiting the moon? Why did the European Space Agency (ESA) ask Hungary’s Space Research Laboratory at the ELKH Energy Research Center to develop the tool?

America invented the Artemis program, which aims to get to the moon and get the first woman to the moon by 2024. It has several major subprojects. The first is to get there by rocket; the second is the space capsule, which is used to get astronauts from the rocket to the space station; and the third is the moon landing unit, which goes from the space station to the moon.

The fourth is the Lunar Gateway, the space station that orbits the moon, and its role will be as a transfer station. The Artemis program also aims to establish a long-term human presence on the moon, meaning they are building a lunar base. The United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg and Italy, among others, joined this American program, while Russia has teamed up with China to create a new lunar base as well. So, there is a space competition again between the private sector and state governments, as well as between states.

Hungary is contributing to the Lunar Gateway program with a TRITEL three-dimensional silicon detector space dosimetry telescope that protects the lives of astronauts. The Space Research Laboratory at the ELKH Energy Science Research Center assembles the Pille [ed. note: a dosimeter] and the TRITEL and measures the cosmic radiation that astronauts are exposed to. The center is one of the institutes of Eötvös Loránd University’s Research Network and has been involved in research for a long time, with special regard to dosimetry and radiation measurement. As part of this, Bertalan Farkas brought the Pille into space. ELKH’s spin-off company, REMRED Kft., is carrying out the engineering work. Alongside my work with the Energy Science Research Center, I am also a 50 percent shareholder of REMRED Kft.

Can we say that Hungary has a space industry today? Why is space research, in general and in Hungary, important?

Hungary’s scientific and research industry network is very strong; just think of the institutes of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network, the Energy Science Research Center or the new space center established in Sopron. The industrial background is still evolving, but there is knowledge in satellite communication technologies, radiation protection technologies and materials science engineering.

The space industry is not just about rockets and astronauts. If we turned off everything related to the space industry today, we would go back to prehistory. Just think of navigation. When we type where we want to go, we communicate via satellites. If we want to see what a particular place looks like using Google Earth, we actually use an Earth observation service.

The space industry and the space sector are the pinnacle of high-tech. Until we got to the moon during the Apollo program, many inventions such as aluminum foil, velcro or wi-fi hadn’t been developed. This means that a lot of the daily technology we use today is thanks to space technology innovations. Two other examples are CT and MRI in healthcare — these technologies were developed from space technology.

Also, a very important point is that the crises of the 21st century cannot be resolved without the space industry. For example, in the case of COVID-19, a lot of decisions are made based on satellite data.

It is very important for humanity to become a multiplanetary species, not only to get to the Moon or Mars, but also because it will have very serious economic consequences. For example, a substance called Helium 3 can be mined on the moon, which would specifically solve the Earth’s energy supply problem without polluting the Earth, and in doing so, we could also solve all environmental problems.

What is your vision regarding space and what opportunities does Hungary have in space?

I’m basically a lawyer and had the opportunity to go to the International Space University, where I got a comprehensive picture of the sector. What gave me my vision was when I was able to go to the Space Congress in Australia in 2017, where Elon Musk presented his vision including Falcon Heavy, BFR and a future Mars colony. This vision is a driving force today, and I want Hungary not to lag behind because this is the future.

In the national space strategy, the state will set out what Hungary needs to do to reach the highest possible level in the space industry. I work at my own level in the Hungarian space ecosystem as a private investor.

I teach space law and space policy at the University of Pécs, and through the SpaceBuzz Foundation, we will soon also provide 10–12-year-olds with 10–12 hours of education and use of VR to experience the Overview Effect. It will all happen in a bus shaped like a spaceship. The pilot program will start in a total of 12 schools this autumn.

Through REMRED, which is the spin-off company of the ELKH Energy Science Research Center, we give researchers a foothold. As mentioned above, this company manufactures the Pille and TRITEL. The Pille was the instrument that Bertalan Farkas brought with him to space, and the company has now won the opportunity to supply the Lunar Gateway program with the TRITEL three-dimensional silicon detector space dosimetry telescope, a radiation-protection device that could save astronauts’ lives. This is one of the largest space projects in Hungary recently.

I am also invested in CarpathiaSat Zrt., through my company New Space Industries.   CarpathiaSat aims to make a Hungarian geostationary satellite by 2024. The other two partners in the company are the publicly listed company 4iG (51%) and the state-owned Antenna Hungária (44%).

I believe that Hungary should aim to create the basic infrastructure in the upcoming years to be able to integrate with international projects with high added value. The aim is for Hungarian companies and researchers to be able to participate in more international projects such as the Lunar Gateway.

Space diplomacy has a strong role to play in the space sector, and multilateral and bilateral relations are very important here. The New Space era is characterized by an appreciation of bilateral relations. When agreements are made at the political level, companies begin to collaborate. The state has a big role in helping facilitate these relationships.

When and why did the government become an active player in supporting the space industry and why is the government’s presence in this area important?

The space sector is a fundamentally expensive, and not a necessarily functional, area. The Apollo project and the International Space Station were typically state-funded projects. Since 2010, the private sector has created a variety of innovations and costs have begun to decline. The declining costs have opened up opportunities for smaller states and their companies to be involved in international projects and enter the market.

Large investment agencies predict that the space industry will soon be a trillion-dollar sector with a huge rate of return. States have realized this and started investing more and more in space. This is important because without the state, this sector would not exist.

Hungary is in a particularly good “space” position in the region and can easily overcome its regional disadvantage due to its serious space heritage. It is also important to emphasize that Hungary’s research network is very strong in this area as well. In addition, the country has a very good relationship with Russia thanks to the Interkosmos program, and it is also a member of the European Space Agency.

We have already doubled our payment into the European Space Agency, and that opened up opportunities for participation in optional programs such as human spaceflight, satellite technologies and Earth observation.

The role of the state in the Hungarian space industry is the same as anywhere else in the world, and it focuses — and should focus — on supporting its companies so that they can participate in international projects and cooperations. There has been a good level of recognition in Hungary; leaders have seen the international trends and decided to make moves accordingly.

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