Estonia, the most digital country in the world, also has a long history of developing and shaping space science as we know it today. Although the Estonian space program focuses on cyber security and machine learning, Estonian companies are also tapping into the potential of sending technology to space.
One of the recent success stories is a stereo camera that will be part of the NASA Artemis program. Estonian company CrystalSpace was selected to build two cameras that will act as a stereo pair to monitor the operations of a robotic arm that will collect regolith samples from the moon. CrystalSpace partnered with the Tartu Observatory of the University of Tartu, and Krakul, an Estonian autonomous systems development company.
The cameras are part of a robotic arm developed by Maxar Technologies, an earth intelligence and space infrastructure company. The Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering, and Probing of Lunar Regolith (SAMPLR) is the first United States-provided robotic arm operated on the surface of Earth’s Moon since the Surveyor missions more than 50 years ago. SAMPLR is one of 12 externally-developed payloads that NASA selected in 2019 as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) project, which allows rapid acquisition of lunar delivery services for payloads like SAMPLR that advance capabilities for science, exploration, or commercial development of the Moon.
Although CrystalSpace is a small company from Estonia, they operate in a very specific field, developing and producing nanosatellite parts. The company has developed payloads for satellites like ESTCube-1, Aalto-1, and ESEO. The company was created in 2013 as a spin-off from the student CubeSat project ESTCube-1.
“We already had a proven space technology background right from the start. In addition to developing and selling camera systems, CrystalSpace has participated in various projects, for example, we were part of the ESA BIC Estonia business incubator in 2017, which also added credibility. We built our contact network over time and have also attended various conferences and space events to put ourselves in the picture,” said Pätris Halapuu, CEO of CrystalSpace.
“In the field of space technology hardware, you have to be around for a longer time and show quality, ability, and consistency to be a recognized and trusted player. ESA, NASA, and other space organizations have their own databases of trusted suppliers, and we managed to get into NASA’s supplier database around 2016,” Halapuu added.
Maxar contacted the Estonian company, as they took an interest in the camera models they found in the company’s portfolio that seemed to be a close fit for their purpose. “We then started detailed discussions with them, which lasted almost one year before signing the contract. We were able to discuss everything necessary in time, building a business relationship that reached the result,” added Halapuu.
CrystalSpace developed the camera solution together with Tartu Observatory of the University of Tartu and IoT and autonomous systems development company Krakul. “We had a tight schedule, but since we had worked with our partners on various projects before, we knew we could count on everyone being able to meet the deadlines,” commented Kristjan Tozen, CEO of Krakul. CrystalSpace delivered system integration and the design and optics of the camera in cooperation with Tartu Observatory.
As CrystalSpace already had a working camera model in their portfolio, the key aspect of product development was determining what needed to be adjusted to meet Maxar’s specific requirements. Product development included industrial design, firmware development, electronics development, software development, mechanical design, testing, and verification. Tozen noted that they were fortunate to have excellent partners in Estonia, with several of them also having previous experience with space technology. Krakul handled industrial design, firmware, and electronics development and partnered with Insero for mechanical design and Tauria for software development.