The Netherlands has a strong aerospace cluster, comprising educational institutions, research organisations and innovative companies. The cluster, located primarily in the province of Zuid-Holland, is increasingly focusing on more than just aerospace; it is turning its attention to issues that also benefit society, such as Earth observation, climate research and geo-information services.
When it comes to space, Zuid-Holland – and, by extension, the Netherlands – is a key international player: ESTEC, the technical centre of the European Space Agency, is located here; NL Space Campus in Noordwijk is quickly evolving into a high-tech aerospace campus; the EU Galileo Reference Center, the Netherlands Aerospace Centre and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON) are all newcomers to the province; the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities alliance offers degree programmes in a variety of space-related disciplines that are highly regarded around the world – as is their academic research into aerospace and related fields. Moreover, Zuid-Holland boasts some one hundred space companies, far more than any other Dutch province.
The partners collaborate in the field of aerospace to develop new knowledge and technologies and to translate them into practical innovations. Researchers and entrepreneurs combine their knowledge and expertise to develop new products and find solutions for societal challenges. And they do this within the space knowledge and innovation ecosystem. A successful space ecosystem needs close ties to other knowledge and innovation clusters in the region.
Leading the way
The space cluster demonstrates its strength in various ways. The Netherlands is a world leader in the development and scientific use of space instruments for optical measurements in astrophysics and atmospheric research. Our strength in the optical domain stems partly from the exchange of knowledge within the aerospace sector and with organisations such as the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and ASML.As a result, the Netherlands excels in the increasingly important field of satellite laser communication. Our country is also highly specialised in (rocket) structures, solar panels and igniters. Thanks in part to their collaborations with knowledge institutions, aerospace companies are pioneers in the development of nanosatellites and miniaturised instruments. And Dutch scientists are leading the way in astronomy, earth sciences and planetary research.
Developments in space research are also having an increasingly bigger impact outside the aerospace domain; just think of the social benefits in the field of information provision, safety, prosperity and well-being. The world is facing enormous challenges in a multitude of areas: climate, the environment, peace and security, food security, well-being and prosperity, energy, nature and migration. We need a lot of information in order to tackle these challenges: statistical information, environmental information, socio-geographic information and physical-geographic information. Aerospace is increasingly becoming the source of that information.
A key and integral role
Aerospace also plays a key and integral role in data collection, digitisation and artificial intelligence. For example, it is the catalyst behind new data science techniques, such as Earth observation via satellites, satellite TV and broadband internet access. Thanks to technological developments in miniaturisation, automation and standardisation, commercial parties are gradually playing an increasingly important role in the space sector; it is no longer simply the preserve of organisations funded by national governments. This is particularly noticeable in both the construction of (small) satellites, instruments and components and in satellite applications, value-added services and geo-information services.
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus – a key link in the chain
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities are a key link in the space ecosystem. Their core tasks include providing academic degree programmes and conducting fundamental research, as well as strengthening human capital, developing and using research and test facilities, and providing advice and support. In other words: without universities, there would be no new knowledge, no new skills and no innovation. The link with terrestrial applications is also reflected in these core tasks.
In an interview, Willem Hulsink, associate professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), gives a good example: “The best application of space technology may lie in a completely different sector. For example, you can set up a company for precision agriculture based on Earth observation data.” In terms of terrestrial applications of aerospace technology, Hulsink believes that Zuid-Holland has the entire knowledge chain at its disposal, with specialist knowledge of astronomy and Earth observation in Leiden and strong engineering in Delft. RSM also plays a key role when analysing situations from a broader perspective, since it examines phenomena such as the transfer of knowledge and technology to sectors outside aerospace.
Climate and health
The importance of Earth observation also crops up in an interview with Frans Snik, associate professor at the Leiden University Observatory. Snik mentions, for example, the use of optical techniques he developed to determine the impact of particulates on our climate and health. Particulates are currently the biggest source of uncertainty in climate change. He also sees potential in incorporating all the data from large and small Earth observation satellites into everyday life. This way, space technology can be used to achieve our sustainable development goals and to improve our society.