LLEIDA, Spain — The first thing you see when you get to the Montsec Astronomical Park is a big dark metal dome: the planetarium. Behind it are three smaller white domes, housing various telescopes. Farther up a bumpy road is the Montsec Observatory. All this space gadgetry seems out of place among the earthy mountain surroundings, but the area — which has some of the darkest skies in Catalonia — has been frequented by amateur astronomers for decades.
When the observatory opened in 2008, it "was conceived as an astronomical observatory, but that was extended in 2018 as a ground station for the communication with nanosatellites," says Josep Colomé, the Montsec Observatory's director.
Now, the site is also set to become the home of Catalonia's official space agency. Commenters question the timing and motivations behind such a venture funded by a regional government whose leaders want independence from Spain. But the Catalan government says "the democratization of space" is a window of opportunity to take part in the "new space economy."
The government plans to invest more than $21 million over the next four years in the project, and expects to attract private companies, create 1,200 new jobs and generate revenue of more than $300 million.
During that time, the program envisions sending up to six miniature satellites into orbit from international rocket launches. These nanosatellites, about the size of a shoebox and significantly cheaper than traditional ones, will be used to set up a stronger 5G mobile network and conduct Earth observation for climate change purposes.
The first nanosatellite is scheduled to launch on March 20 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and will be managed by the Institute for Space Studies of Catalonia, which runs the Montsec Observatory.
Thousands of children participated in a contest to name the satellite. The wining name — Enxaneta — makes reference to one of Catalonia's oldest traditions: human towers upon which a final climber, called the enxaneta, usually a light agile young child, stands at the very top.
Not like NASA
The Catalan Space Agency is not yet officially registered. But David Ferrer, Catalan secretary of digital policies, says Catalonia won't need approval from the central government in Madrid in order to move forward.
He says the venture won't be what most people imagine a space agency to be. In other words, Catalonia won't be sending astronauts to space or a robot to Mars. "We chose the word 'agency' because it was easier to understand," he says.
The idea, Ferrer says, is for Catalonia to become a producer of digital technology — not just a consumer. The region is already home to 13 research centers and 30 companies in the space industry. Ferrer hopes the new agency will attract even more players.
"Catalonia has long been working on and developing strategies related to advanced digital technologies," he says. "We have an ecosystem of industries, making Catalonia the perfect place for this kind of program."
Launch of memes
But when the Catalan government first announced its intentions to form a space agency back in October — and Digital Policy Minister Jordi Puigneró called it "the Catalan NASA" — various social media users took to Twitter with mixed reactions. Some praised the initiative, while others made fun of it, with memes of human towers and Catalan sausage rocketing into space. Inevitably, a mock account for "Catalan NASA" was made.
In December, politicians from the far-right Vox party demanded that the country's State Council block the formation of the agency. In February, Carlos Carrizosa from the center-right Citizens party criticized the Catalan government for "claiming there's no money" yet spending millions on a space agency.
There was also criticism over the timing of the project. Catalonia is still recovering from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which as of December had cost at least 75,716 jobs. Spain has been one of the European countries worst-hit by COVID-19.
Ferrer says he understands some of the criticism, but doesn't agree.
"We are planting seeds that won't come into fruition for some years, but which will allow for the strengthening of a sector," says Ferrer.
Ultimately, he says, the goal is to generate economic growth and development — and to retain Spanish scientists who often look for jobs abroad, where salaries are higher.
But French space economist Pierre Lionnet says investing in space is unlikely to boost Catalonia's economy.
"Space is not giving you a lot of return in terms of job creation," says Lionnet, director of research at Eurospace, the trade association of Europe's space industry. "If you invested the same amount into a retail company, you would get four times as many jobs as you do in space."
Lionnet says there's no real need for Catalonia to have a separate space agency when Spain's National Institute of Aerospace Technology, an organization that functions as the country's space agency, is already a member of the European Space Agency. Representatives from both the Spanish and European agencies declined to comment on the issue.
These types of space programs are typical of emerging countries hoping to position themselves on the international stage, says Lionnet.
"Having a real space agency with a real space program, which has a political impact on the geopolitical scale, is a completely other story," he says. "My impression is that this is something to differentiate themselves from Spain."