Artists view of the Norwegian satellite Norsat-1 in orbit with all instruments extended.

3D model of NORSAT‐1, with m‐NLP’s cantilever system visible. With the extension of the license agreement between EIDEL and UiO, EIDEL will now start commercialisation of this version of m‐NLP, in addition to the ESA version Eidel delivered in April. Photo: Trond Abrahamsen.

Norwegians are obsessed by the weather, but the weather in outer space is not normally part of small talk between friends and acquaintances. The weather in space, more specifically the outer layers of the atmosphere called the ionosphere, nonetheless has a great impact on most of us, without us knowing it. There are often big gusts of wind and turbulence there, which lead to interruptions to GPS measurements and satellite communication on Earth.

An extensive and long standing collaboration between the Department of Physics at UiO, the company EIDEL, which was started by a Swede in a garage in Eidsvoll in the 1960s, and Inven2 may, in time, lead to an outer space weather forecast service similar to that of YR. A weather forecast for space of this kind can, in turn, lead to a new way of flying, thereby forming the basis for a billion kroner industry in Norway.

Space-certified probe in 2018

The basis for the whole project is a unique instrument called the multi-Needle Langmuir Probe, or m-NLP for short. It is this instrument that can form the core of the space weather forecast, which will enable secure use of GPS.

“The theoretical basis for m-NLP, the measurement principle itself, was designed by the student Knut Stanley Jacobsen from the Department of Physics on assignment for Jøran Idar Moen in the summer of 2007. I have worked on implementing the system, with electronics, a cantilever system and probes, through both by master’s and PhD degrees, and this work is the basis for my now being employed at EIDEL,” says Tore André Bekkeng.

In April 2018, the m-NLP instrument in EIDEL’s radiation tolerant version was certified by the European Space Agency (ESA) for use in space. The UiO version of the instrument is currently flying on the Norwegian satellite Norsat-1 and Norway thereby has its first space weather satellite in orbit. m-NLP will now be launched on a number of satellites and further developed to, among other things, be reduced in size enabling it to also be used on small satellites.

But what is so groundbreaking about the instrument with the complicated name?

Measures distances in space in real time

The brilliant thing about m-NLP is that it can measure electron density in the ionosphere much more accurately and with much greater spatial resolution than other corresponding instruments. This is all Greek to most of us, but these simple facts explain it a bit better: Before m-NLP was developed, it was only possible to do one or two measurements of electron density per second. However, m-NLP manages 5,000–10,000 measurements a second.

“This means that the resolution changes from kilometre-based to metre-based, and that we can observe and forecast any interruptions to the radio signal between the satellite and user on Earth,” explains Bekkeng.

Professor Jøran Moen is head of the Department of Physics and has spent his Easter holiday in Silicon Valley to become even more inspired. Moen understood early on that m-NLP could become extremely important. He is now making strategic and long-term efforts to position Norway as a key player in the development of a space weather forecast service and an industry that can produce m-NLP on a large scale.

“If you assemble m-NLP instruments on a fleet of satellites, we can both measure and forecast the weather in space around the globe,” says Moen.

“This means that aircraft can completely trust GPS signals and fly the shortest distances from A to B, which could revolutionise air traffic. Today, aeroplanes need radio signals from the ground to fly safely. They therefore fly from point to point where they have contact with a radio tower on the ground, rather than taking the shortest route. By reducing dependency on radio towers, the aircraft will save fuel and time on each flight, and they can use a bigger area in which to fly, thereby avoiding traffic build-ups in narrow air corridors,” says Moen.

Inven2 decisive for the project

Jøran Moen firmly believes that Inven2 has played a decisive role in the development of the m-NLP system’s innovation potential.

“Inven2 meant that we succeeded in achieving industry cooperation. My main idea has continuously been to engage a Norwegian business to develop m-NLP for commercial use, since this will help to improve Norway’s position in European space operations. m-NLP is now certified for use by European satellites, and this gives Norway and EIDEL a major competitive advantage over other European corporations,” says Moen.

“The collaboration with EIDEL is absolutely essential to us succeeding in getting m-NLP into the commercial market for global space weather services.”

The fact that EIDEL, which is a small company with 11 employees, has received an ESA-commissioned project means a lot to the further development of the business in Eidsvoll. If EIDEL succeeds in selling the instruments, it will also generate income to UiO.

“EIDEL has been awarded the license for m-NLP, and we entered into a smart agreement back in 2011 that ensures a good return on this license for the university and Jøran’s group,” says Bjarne Tvete, who is business developer at Inven2.

Along with his colleague Elin Melby, he has worked closely with Professor Moen and EIDEL for a number of years.

Moen says he will use Inven2’s competence in the project’s further development.

“What I appreciate most about the collaboration with Inven2 is that they have helped to focus my ideas. I had no previous competence in commercialisation, so Inven2 has been an important factor in realising the innovation potential of my group’s research. Elin and Bjarne have challenged me all the way, which has been great. Inven2 is also very good in terms of protecting the rights to the ideas, and has ensured good contracts where all parties benefit from the collaboration,” says Moen.

Creating jobs and increased competitiveness

Although on a day-to-day basis, Professor Moen and his research group and students are interested in advanced basic research on the causes of turbulence in the ionosphere, the idea of actually using the knowledge is always present.

With Moen, there is no culture for putting projects on the back burner. Here, it is about taking advantage of the downstream opportunities, as he puts it. The downstream opportunities in the short and long term are spin-off companies related to the development of a space weather forecast service, large-scale production of m-NLPs and, not least, customer support. Moen estimates that the production and support of m-NLP in a global market for space weather forecasts can create at least 200 jobs, and he hopes that as many of these as possible will be in Norway.

“I am very conscious of the fact that our work and research is based on funds that stem from the tax payers. This means that we need to give back to society where we can. In the same way, it is also important to me that my students are able to contribute to developing the industry after completing their studies,” says Moen.

Bekkeng, who has taken his master’s and PhD degree in Moen’s group, explains that ESA’s condition for EIDEL receiving the project on certification of m-NLP in 2013 was that he joined forces with EIDEL.

Truls Andersen, managing director of EIDEL, is very satisfied with this. He believes that the collaboration with UiO and Inven2 has given the business he manages a leg up in a global market.

We achieve an exchange of competence, technology and experience through our collaboration with UiO. This means that EIDEL becomes competitive in a very competitive market when we can present results from basic research and develop them into commercial products together,” says Andersen.

“We would not have had this access to basic research had it not been for such a collaboration. The initiatives we are currently working on will form the basis for further growth in the business. It is also important to us to be able to give back to UiO so that they can continue their research. This is where Inven2 enters the stage and does a great job in balancing these needs, as well as seeing the needs of both parties,” he adds.

So in just a few years from now, when planes are hopefully flying in a straight line from A to B, we can offer a thought to Norwegian innovation spurred by curiosity and a synergistic collaboration between basic research and industry.