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Turkish talent working on high-risk space venture

thumbs_b_c_9f935d1350e4563588eef312e625cefbMillions are being pumped into an ambitious project to design and launch a domestic Turkish satellite

ISTANBUL

“What you launch into space is a small device weighing a few tons and is about three meters square in size.

“But if something happens to it, it is nothing but trash.”

So says Cuneyd Firat, the chairman of an Istanbul-based company which is at the forefront of Turkey’s high-tech moves to develop its first domestic satellite.

Firat, whose company CTech is a part of consortium to develop the first communication satellite in Turkey, stressed the risks for the country in developing such a costly, yet fragile, piece of hardware for the first time.

Turkey officially began the precarious journey of developing its own satellite in December 2014.

Several companies signed a deal worth 550 million Turkish liras [$240 million at that time], making the project the costliest research and development program in the country’s history.

Part of the money [approximately 150 million liras] will come from the Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council, or TUBITAK, mandated to fund such projects.

The Communication Ministry will foot the rest of the bill.

The satellite has been developed and manufactured under the leadership of TUBITAK in cooperation with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), Military Electronic Industries (ASELSAN) and CTech, the only private firm in the consortium.

Turksat, the country’s satellite communications company, will own and operate the satellite.

“The preliminary design process has ended. We plan to complete the satellite in 2019 and launch it in 2020,” Turksat’s Ensar Gul tells Anadolu Agency.

He stressed how crucial it is for Turkey to develop a satellite with its own resources: “Design and software will be homemade.”

Despite the risky nature of space projects, Turkey started its journey in 1994 with its first satellite, Turksat 1A, constructed by French firm Aerospatiale.

Unfortunately, it malfunctioned and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean; Turkey replaced it with Turksat 1B.

France developed Turksat 3A-B with Turkish engineers overseeing the production process and Mitsubishi, the Japanese giant, developed Turksat 4A and 4B, including Turkish engineers in the design and manufacturing teams.

Meanwhile, Turkish engineers developed Turkey’s first national earth observation satellite, RASAT, in 2011 and Turkey’s first high-resolution observation and surveillance satellite, Gokturk 2, in 2012.

Gokturk 2’s main computer and its software were homemade. The whole project cost 140 million Turkish liras [$78 million in Dec. 2012].

Stressing these successful steps, Zahit Mecitoglu, professor of space engineering at Istanbul Technical University, tells Anadolu Agency: “Turkey has developed the know-how to build its own satellites.”

On top of this, last May, Turkey opened its first satellite assembly and test center. The 3,800-square-meter center will be capable of testing satellites up to five tons in weight, Turkish Aerospace Industries said.

The center is considered part of Turkish efforts to break into the international space industry. The production of Turksat 6A will be conducted there.

Following these remarkable steps, experts also stressed a strategic nature of developing a domestic satellite.

“It is vital for Turkey to acquire that technology,” Prof. Mecitoglu says.

Acknowledging that there are only few countries that can produce satellites, Ensar Gul says: “You develop a craft that can work on its own in space for 15-20 years.”

Gul stated that Turkey would eventually have its own satellite platform, based on a domestic design:

“[Countries] develop their own platform and use the same design for future programs. From that perspective, it is difficult to construct this satellite for the first time,” Gul said.

Rustem Alan, professor of aeronautical engineering at Istanbul Technical University, said this was a typical approach: “The crucial matter is to design your satellite,” Alan tells Anadolu Agency.

CTech, for example, is tasked with producing a telemetry command and ranging system (TCR) that will connect the satellite to the ground control station once in orbit.

“Without that part, the ground control cannot know where the satellite is and cannot control it,” Firat says.

However, this part will be bought from other companies after a bidding process since any space project requires this part to be ‘space proven’.

Extreme conditions in space demand robust testing.

The satellite can be exposed to blistering heat of +150 Celsius while other parts of the same craft would be subjected to freezing cold of -80 degrees Celsius or less — experiencing both extremes in a short period.

The behavior of electronic components is different in space when compared to their attitude on earth, experts said.

CTech will still develop its own TCR part for experimental purposes so that the homemade technology can be tested in space for future use.

In order to develop this domestic TCR module, the firm has employed 15 people. “CTech will be responsible for all these TCR parts anyway,” Firat says.

Prof. Alan says that thanks to the Turksat 6A project, Turkey will acquire the ability to produce its own satellite and have a chance to enter the competitive communication-satellite market.

“Marketization of the satellite program would take time. Primarily, this program is a strategic step,” Firat warned.

He added, however, that it is still profitable that Turkey would have ability to produce its own satellite.

Turkey orders a communication satellite every three-to-four years. A domestic design will save Turkey from being dependent on foreign countries and keep expenditure inside the country.

Turkey’s involvement in space programs has paved the way for Turks to develop a knowledge base and train engineers.

However, experts stressed that Turkey needs to do more for space programs, including establishing a space agency to accelerate and direct these projects.

“Further steps require Turkey to have educated people for space programs. This is the biggest problem. Money would not be enough [for future programs],” Firat said.

Alan says that there has been a coordination problem in the industry: “We need a space agency,” he adds.

Similarly, Firat urged the authorities to set up a space agency to fast-track space projects, adding that Turkey also requires educated people and know-how.

“[Between] 200-300 people have participated in this project. These are people that have worked for space projects in Turkey. There is no-one else,” he stressed.

However, it is unlikely that the state will recruit foreigners for such projects likely due to the sensitive nature of space programs.

As a company, CTech has stepped up its involvement into space projects since 2008 by providing consultation to Japanese giant, Mitsubishi.

Years of tireless efforts have put the company at the heart of Turkey’s first communication satellite project.

Firat sees this involvement as a second beginning for his tech firm.

“Turksat 6A is not a result, rather a beginning of a second level,” he commented.

So, it seems, for Turkey as well.

Anadolu Agency

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