return to nº43

by Dolors Pérez Vives.

(The creation of a computer system intended to control the launching of Ariane space rockets into orbit, the designing of the first digital multi-media processor to be fitted inside a satellite, the research leading to the production of a type of cement which would allow the construction of bases on the moon, the study and monitoring of the astronauts' body fluids in a state of micro-gravity, the conception of a chair that would allow them to exercise during space flights, the manufacturing of special refrigerators to carry fresh food from the earth to space stations, or the in-depth study of the composition and age of the Universe through data obtained by observing the stars : all these developments sound like the techonological feats we read about in science fiction stories in which the main characters usually are American or Russian scientists working in sophisticated laboratories. Well, this is but a deceptive appearance because, as a matter of fact, such highly complex activities are currently being conducted in Barcelona.
"Five, four, three, two, one, zero ..." The space rocket is launched into space, leaving behind a thick trail of white smoke. In a large room full of monitor screens and computers, the people in attendance applaud and happily congratulate each other. This is the typical image broadcasted by films and television news bulletins every time a space rocket is put into orbit whithout mishap. Well now, even though the news may have a fictional ring, the room from which experts are controlling the whole launching process of ESA (European Space Agency) rockets - namely Ariane 4 and Ariane 5 - has actually been designed and constructed in its totality in Barcelona, more concretely in the Vila Olímpica district. And, for such a highly sophisticated achievement, GTD - a local enterprise specializing in Industrial Software and Systems Engineering - has deservedly won the 1997 "Premi d'Investigació Tecnològica Ciutat de Barcelona" (City of Barcelona Technological Research Award).

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GTD is a Catalan company that has been operating for eleven years now, eventually consolidating itself as a leading enterprise in the field of industrial engineering at a national as well as international level. The average age of its seventy employees - engineers and scientists, for the most part - is twenty-six years, and their youth brings special enthusiasm into all their projects and undertakings. "We started working in the field of systems engineering for the chemical and motor industries" - Angel Ramirez, the current vice-chairman of GTD, explains - "And the in-depth knowledge we acquired in those sectors provided us with the necessary experience to tackle more innovative projects related to space research and science. We started out by working for research laboratories on different projects regarding telescopes, material analysis, structure calculation, etc... and we went on to steadily build up our competitive ability in fields related to the aerospace industry, eventually specializing in ground-based tracking and control equipment".
The physicist Marta Escudero was the head of the project that has allowed the new control centre in Guiana - from which Ariane space rockets are being launched in order to put diverse types of satellites into orbit - to become reality. The centre's facilities have been in use since June 1997 and fourteen launching operations have already been carried out, all of them successfully. "The task of carrying through a launching operation requires a system that functions at its optimum as regards all aspects of the undertaking : follow-through information on the trajectory, space rocket design and features, engine ignition, meteorological conditions, etc..." - Marta Escudero explains - "and the control centre is precisely the system that receives all the required data about the condition of the other systems that play a part in the process. That is where decisions are made and where the countdown is set off. Moeover, once the space rocket has been launched, the centre constantly monitors its trajectory as well as other relevant in-flight data and events. It is also used to carry out an a posteriori analysis of the whole process". (...)
If GTD specializes in ground-based control systems, there are different other enterprises in Barcelona that are part of the restricted group which works in the complementary sector of the aerospace industry, involved in developing and making equipment intended to be used in space flights. But sending high-technology equipment into space is very expensive, not only because of the launching operation itself, but also because of the costs involved in carrying out repairs in the event of damage, as the whole process has to be directed from ground-based facilities. This explains why Space Agencies consider matters most carefully before assigning one of their projects to a given enterprise. In Spain, there are currently eleven companies - two of them in Barcelona - operating in that sector. Besides, institutions - and more particularly university centres - contribute to space research by carrying out specialized pieces of work. This is the case of the UPC (Polytechnic University of Catalonia) where Gregori Vázquez and Jaume Riba - both of them lecturers in telecommunications at the UPC - have designed the first digital multi-media processor to be fitted inside a satellite. This new processor makes it possible to improve on the quality of the images received by means of television systems while reducing costs. "Before we started using this new system in February 1998, the normal way of sending the signals of the television programmes to the satellite was by using a ground-based programme-concentrating network" - Gregori Vázquez explains - "With the new digital system, the satellite no longer acts as a mirror that receives signals and sends them back to the earth, but it now performs more intelligent tasks such as collecting signals, making distinctions between programmes (cartoons, films, sporting events broadcasts, etc...) in order to adjust the quality of the visual images to the required standards (films and sporting events broadcoasts have to meet higher standards of image quality than cartoons and news reports, for instance). Then, the satellite proceeds to reconfigure the different programmes, removes interference sounds and corrects any image degradation that might have occurred during the long-distance travel through space, at an altitude of more than 36.000 kilometres, and finally produces sharp pictures ready to be sent back. Those signals reach an extended area that includes the whole of Europe, the former USSR, the Azores and Canary Islands, North Africa and the Near East". (...)
"Mier Communicaciones", another Catalonia-based company that has specialized in the technological development of high-frequency amplifiers, is currently working on three projects related to the space industry. "Besides our contribution to the Skyplex project, we are participating in the development of high frequency amplifiers for the Metop programme carried out by EUMESAT (the Environmental Science Satellite European Agency), a meteorological satellite which should be launched in 2002", Pere Mier points out. They are also taking part in another important project concerning the construction of a radiometer called MIRAS, an undertaking co-ordinated from the European Space Agency by the engineer Manuel Martínez Neira. The MIRAS radiometer is a scientific instrument intended for measuring radiation levels on the earth's surface in order to obtain relevant information for climatological studies". (...)

The astronaut, a subject under study.
The reactions and requirements of the human body in a state of micro-gravity are the subject matter of serious studies by space agencies, insofar as manned space flights are more and more frequent and astronauts stay in space for increasingly long periods of time. New solutions and ways to ensure that their physiological as well as psychological functions suffer as little deterioration as possible have to be worked out.
In Barcelona, diverse studies are being carried out in that field of research. One of them is centred around the design of an electrical impedance equipment that would provide information about the redistribution of physiological fluids within an astronaut's body in weightless conditions. This study, commissioned by the European Space Agency, is being carried out by the Catalan company NTE - "Nuevas Tecnologias Espaciales" (New Space Technologies) - and the part of the work related to the electronic design of the system is being done collaboratively with the UPC researchers.(...)
The electrical impedance equipment designed at the UPC was considered the best option, since it makes it possible to calculate the percentages of fat and water in the human body independently in the different parts of the body (arms, legs, trunk, etc...), as well as the cellular and intracellular percentages at all times. (...)
Another of the NTE company's areas of activity is the design and production of refrigerators specially made to be part of a spaceship's equipment. "These refrigerators are used to store the astronauts's physiological and biological samples which have to be preserved in good condition so that they can be analyzed when returned to earth" - Pastor adds - "The first of these refrigerators was sent into space in 1993 on the Spacelab, another was installed in the Mir station and the last one was sent into the air in 1996, also as part of the Spacelab equipment. Besides, we are presently working on the design of a refrigerator that is intended to be used to carry fresh food to the astronauts during lengthy space flights or extended stays on the international station".
Nevertheless, the current star project at NTE is the one called MARES (Muscular Atrophy and Exercice Research System). It is aimed at designing and constructing a special type of chair that might not only be used by astronauts to exercice their muscles and joints adequately during space flights, but also serve to monitor and later study their physical and neurological behaviour. Experts from the CAR, "Centre d'Alt Rendiment" (High Performance Centre), are collaborating as advisers on the biomechanical aspects of this project. (...)

An institute meant to groups efforts together.
Since 1996, Catalonia can boast its own space research institute, the "Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya" (IEE), which was created with the objective of unifying scattered scientific efforts while creating teams of experts capable of competing at home and abroad in all areas of activity related to the space industry.
Jordi Isern, an astrophysicist who has developed a true passion for the Universe and its mysteries, is the director of the IEE. "In Catalonia, within the different universities and research centres, approximately forty groups - comprising a total of some two hundred people - are presently working on subjects related to space research. Unfortunately, these groups are scattered and, even though their studies and works are valuable, none of them has, as an individual unit, either the manpower or the means necessary to tackle large-scale projects. This is why institutions such as the "Fundació Catalana per la Recerca" (Catalan Foundation for Scientific Research), the University of Barcelona, the "Consell Superior d'Investigacions Científiques" (Scientific Research High Council), the Autonomous University and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia have joined forces to set up the "Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya", Jordi Isern explains. (...)