ispace Europe managing director Kyle Acierno is pictured at the Incub with one of the model rovers Matic Zorman

ispace Europe managing director Kyle Acierno is pictured at the Incub with one of the model rovers Matic Zorman

ispace Europe managing director Kyle Acierno is moving heavy signs around a seemingly abandoned industrial zone in Dommeldange, when I meet him for this interview. He is setting up for the next Luxembourg Space Café, a side project to help demystify and get people behind Luxembourg’s space sector. The interview is conducted in fits and starts as he directs guests and posts signs, but throughout he is coherent and focused.

As MD of a spin-off, that grew out of a team in a contest, Acierno is accustomed to multi-tasking. Since joining the Japanese company in 2015 as an intern from the International Space University in Strasbourg, he has gone from business analyst to establishing offices at Nasa Ames in the US (2015) and Luxembourg (2017) to running the Luxembourg office, which today counts 16 staff.

“The first main attraction was the €200m they [Luxembourg] offered [a global pot for newspace companies as part of the space resources initiative]. Honestly, that was the attraction I still think it’s the main attraction for companies to come here,” he explains, adding: “The second thing was they were seriously considering the regulatory framework. For us that was very important as well because space resources was something we wanted to use and if they were creating a framework that would be helpful to us in future.”

Google Lunar X prize

The ispace story began 2010 with Takeshi Hakamada’s team Hakuto building a rover and lander for the Google Lunar X prize, a carrot that would award $20m to the first team to successfully deploy a commercial lunar lander before 31 March 2018. Although the deadline was extended, the contest closed when it was clear none of the five finalists would succeed.

It was not the end of the world for micro-robotics firm ispace, whose medium to long-term vision was always to identify and extract water and other minerals on the moon to help extend human life to the lunar surface.

“All we knew was we were going to use the rover to find resources to do that,” Acierno explains.

ispace forged on and raised its own funds--some $90m, the largest sum of series A funding ever recorded in Japan. Expanding beyond Japan was essential for growth, and the Luxembourg office opened the door to further R&D funding through the Luximpulse programme. But, the attraction was not only about finance and regulatory frameworks--the broader Luxembourg ecosystem plays a key role too.

Moon in miniature

The firm is located at the Incub, an incubator of steel technology firm Paul Wurth, in Hollerich. The site has enabled ispace to recreate the moon’s surface in a lunar yard, located in the basement of their offices. Here they can develop and test technologies and software for simultaneous localisation and mapping because, “when you’re a rover on the moon, you don’t know where you are.”

Sharing the knowhow of engineers at Paul Wurth on mineral extraction and use is also key in the firm’s long-term goal for the development of a lunar civilisation. “Eventually at some time we will have to focus on steel,” Acierno says, adding: “There are opportunities for Paul Wurth to help us understand how to build a blast furnace on the lunar surface or some sort of steel making mechanism.”

To emphasise the enormity of ispace’s mission, Acierno explains that no Europeans have ever been on the moon before and besides the Chinese, it has been a few decades since the moon received a visitor. “This mission we’re working on here in Luxembourg is a mission to look for water at the lunar poles. We’re working with other countries to do that. This will be the first time there will be European countries on the lunar surface so that’s very exciting I think,” the managing director says.

And it is far from being science fiction. In September, ispace announced its maiden lunar missions on SpaceX rockets, with demonstrations of a lunar orbiter scheduled for 2020 followed by the lander and rover in 2021.

Not bad for a decade’s work

Speed is of the essence but, Acierno stresses, frequency is key. “The opportunity to land multiple times, different locations, deploy rovers for exploration--that’s important. And pinpoint landing is very important,” he says. ispace has partnered with guidance navigation and control company Draper, the same firm which helped land Apollo on the moon, for its landing software.

Looking ahead, Acierno sees the Luxembourg space eco-system only getting richer. With an “extremely nimble, responsive” space authority to support startups, and a buzz created by Etienne Schneider’s space resources initiative, Acierno says that “everyone is talking about Luxembourg and more and more companies want to come here.”

He also anticipates further funds in addition to the Luxembourg Space Fund, offering “up to €500m by the end of 2019” to newspace companies. “It could really help the ecosystem. Because direct investment is very different to grants so I think that could be really beneficial for the companies who come here,” he says.