Space conquerors win the Finnish Engineering Award

Satellite development began with Aalto University’s technology students’ course work. Now the goal is to achieve billions worth of turnover and a global satellite network.
Suomalaisen insinöörityön palkinnon saajat
Tuomas Tikka, Jaan Praks, Antti Kestilä, Rafal Modrzewski and Pekka Laurila. Photo: Markus Sommers

Today in Otaniemi, The Finnish Engineering Award was granted to a group that has created an entire space technology sector in Finland and trained a number of new generation space technology experts. The winners are Antti Kestilä, Jaan Praks, Tuomas Tikka, Rafal Modrzewski and Pekka Laurila.

Until recently, Finnish satellites were untapped opportunity, and space was thought to be the playing field of superpower nations and giant corporations. Now, however, the number of Finnish satellites is currently growing at the fastest rate among European nations. Aalto-1, a milk bottle-sized nanosatellite, was born out of students’ course work and was the starting point for the Finnish New Space industry.

Ten years ago, the young leader of the space technology course, Jaan Praks, currently Assistant Professor at Aalto University, discovered the potential of using small satellites in teaching.

‘Initially, the students' satellite construction project generated amusement and excitement at the same time. A very talented and ambitious group of young people accumulated around a project that sounded impossible. We were obviously sufficiently crazy and stubborn,’ says Praks.

Aalto-1 satelliitti
Illustration of Aalto-1 satellite. Credit: Aalto University

Capturing images through clouds and in darkness

From this group, students Antti Kestilä, Rafal Modrzewski and Pekka Laurila set up the ICEYE project at Aalto University and began developing a new type of radar satellite. At the beginning of 2015 the project created a company with the same name.

It was difficult for professionals in the sector to believe that the start-up company had what it took to make it in this field. ICEYE was the first to demonstrate that a very small radar satellite could work.

‘We are in the start-up phase, but in the background there is already more than 50 million euros of funding. We aim to become the world's leading operator with our radar technology,’ says Laurila, Strategy Manager at ICEYE.

ICEYE’s satellites are even capable of capturing images in the dark and through clouds. For example, they enable almost real-time monitoring of the state of floods or the melting of glaciers. With sufficiently large measurement data it is even possible to predict the collapse of a bridge. That is why major energy companies, insurance companies and the financial sector are interested in the potential of nanosatellites. Now ICEYTE employs almost hundred specialists and launches multiple satellites every year.

In 2016, the software company Reaktor and the builders of Aalto satellites decided to jointly establish a company to further develop and commercialise nanosatellites. One of the head developers of Aalto satellites, postgraduate student Tuomas Tikka, was persuaded to become the head of the company. Space has rapidly become a new marketplace. ICEYE and Reaktor Space Lab have succeeded in creating a completely new commercial sector in Finland.

The new field would not have been created without Aalto University's long history of expertise in microwave technology. More than a hundred students have already taken part in student satellite projects and next student satellite launch is scheduled for next year.

‘Technology is based on science. At some point, everything that works, is scientifically proven. Society often forgets this. We should invest in future generations, education and research,’ says Jaan Praks.

Academic Engineers and Architects in Finland TEK and Tekniska Föreningen i Finland TFiF award an annual prize of EUR 30,000 to a person or working group that has considerably promoted technical expertise in Finland. This year, the award was presented by Esko Valtaoja, Professor of Astronomy.

Finnish Engineering Award 2019 Winners:

 • Antti Kestilä, space technology researcher, Finnish Meteorological Institute

• Jaan Praks, assistant professor, Aalto University

• Tuomas Tikka, doctoral student, CEO, Reaktor Space Lab Oy

• Rafal Modrzewski, CEO, Co-founder, ICEYE Oy

• Pekka Laurila, Co-founder, CSO, ICEYE Oy

Technology is based on science. At some point, everything that works, is scientifically proven.

Jaan Praks
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