The Shift in the Winds for Poland’s Space Scene

Monica “Moni” Hernandez
Something is shifting in the winds for Poland’s space scene. And I suspect it has to do with this generational capacity to bootstrap and figure it out along the way. Rockets or launch pads may not be built in Poland at the moment, but slowly, new space companies are emerging and are strategically leveraging decades of experience as leaders in the software, IT, and gaming sectors.
Oleg Danylenko_art_returning_to_Docking_Bay
“Returning to Docking Bay” (Credits: Oleg Danylenko)

Poland has talent. And loads of it. Scientists, engineers, developers, researchers, and entrepreneurs across the spectrum make Poland a nation with a highly prepared workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In addition, the Polish gaming industry is not far behind reaching records as one of the largest exporters of video game and showing the versatility of its workforce.

Only a small minority of Poles, however, has worked in the space industry. In fact, in the post-Soviet era, a handful of companies in Poland have collaborated with space agencies. However, many of these companies are not fully dedicated to space sciences and engineering but support missions as part of a branch or division.

And yet, if you tune in and listen very carefully, there is a subtle shift in the winds of change. The business of space in Poland is gradually undertaking a new direction. The Polish Space Agency (POLSA) was established in 2014 and signed the Artemis Accords this October 2021. Mobile gaming producers founded SatRevolution, a startup that launched its first nanosatellites in 2019 and is now working on a constellation. Astronika, established in 2013, developed the HP3 instrument’s hammering mechanism for NASA’s InSight Martian lander.

Poland’s new generations are preparing to sail outward and onward to new alien worlds. And a superbly skilled workforce is already working for our future in space. I brought to the forefront two case studies that reflect exactly how talent is shifting the winds for Poland’s space scene.

Autonomous Powered Systems for Space Missions

There’s massive debate and engagement as to who is flying and less so on the systems to make us truly spacefaring. Autonomous systems and AI-powered software are crucial components for our future in space. However, not everything essential for our survival in space will be crewed by humans. Our bodies are fragile. We cannot withstand the dangers in space. And yet, autonomous space systems don’t get as much attention as the world of space rockets and crewed spaceflight.

KP Labs is one such new space startup in Poland thinking ahead of this future in space. It delivers hardware and software for autonomous satellite missions in what they codify as a smart mission ecosystem. AI-powered algorithms and built-in hardware features work in tandem to make missions increasingly self-sufficient. Satellites can self-detect anomalies and conduct preventative maintenance.

KP Lab’s business model is to be self-sustaining by serving payloads for B2B customers. KP Labs also supports bold missions for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Polish National Centre for Research and Development (NCRD, Narodowe Centrum Badań i Rozwoju in Polish). The startup collaborates with the Polish government, ESA, and other space agencies, including the Canadian Space Agency and the National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA). I have already written in The Quantum Daily about one of their ESA-projects in collaboration with Quantum Cosmos Lab.

Founded in 2016, KP Labs is located in Gliwice at the south of Poland. The KP Labs team was primarily composed of seasoned software developers in the IT / outsourcing sectors during the first years. Some have already transitioned to leadership, operations, and new division roles. Curious if this professional transition occurs for many in Poland, I had the opportunity for a 1:1 with Michał Zachara, Chief Operating Officer at KP Labs.

Michal Zachara_KPLabs_C00
Michał connected with me from Gliwice.

“At the beginning of the company, developers who had been hunting for bugs for major insurance companies and working directly with clients started building software for satellites at KP Labs. Therefore, they translated the values and lessons learned in such a competitive and client-oriented sector to the space industry. It is quite unusual in the broader space industry to find technical talent that can also participate in client calls, communicate directly with the customer, and deliver high-quality software. Similarly to outsourcing and IT, we need to convince our clients that we are the best company to work with. We need to build those relations by focusing on quality and bringing value.

Our team at KP Labs currently has a strong scientific background from the universities. We are hiring people with Ph.D. degrees who are very talented in their particular area of interest. For example, 10 or 15% of the staff has Ph.D., who are very open about sharing their knowledge with the broader community. In 2020, our team published roughly 20+ papers in the scientific literature about machine learning and deep learning. We need to gather information for our customers but also try to support the broader community.”

With an on-board computer (OBC), Antelope is such an example in their portfolio. With a built-in data processing unit (DPU), KP Labs designed Antelope to execute AI-powered algorithms for predictive satellite maintenance that collect the satellite’s state and give precise answers to the operators about anomalies.

“By delivering the hardware, software, and libraries combined, we create great synergy because each part of the ecosystem brings value to another. And similarly, those pieces can be treated separately. So we are helping our clients not only with one of those areas, but we can also help with the knowledge and experience in all of them,” said Michal.

KP Labs is already undergoing the testing campaign at technology readiness level (TRL) six, where the system prototype is being demonstrated in a relevant environment for space. For their first payload mission scheduled for late 2022 or early 2023, KP Labs will partner with Glasgow-based AAC Clyde Space – a worldwide famous provider of cubesats and nanosats. The launch provider is still to be determined.

“Not everybody thinks about the small components that will power autonomous missions. So, for the next couple of years, most of the Polish companies will stay competitive by focusing on delivering the electronics and software components for the bigger missions. However, the new space companies are not emerging quickly. Space is still something very hard and unusual in Poland. There are not many private investors in Poland investing in the space sector. And in many ways, we are still a developing country. The government always has other big-ticket expenses than space.”

I’ve found that personal testimonies of how people get involved in space open doors for others. Someone can identify with a story and receive the inspirational nudge to continue knocking on doors.

Michal’s path to the space industry is interesting because the opportunity met him mid-career when he wanted a change in life. He ascended quickly on the career ladder after more than a decade in an IT company.

“I was making more revenue for the company by making the work more efficient. However, it didn’t affect my life personally. So I got tired, and I decided to change my life by traveling around the world with my wife and small daughter. As I visited Central America and South America, KP Labs approached me for a job as a product manager. And it was just something totally different. There was this company, creating great products, creating great value. So when I started working with KP Labs initially, I failed with a couple of projects. It was of great value to me because I learned a lot about them. And finally, I became COO of the company after a year and a half. I still need to figure out how to increase revenue and afford to pay our employees every month, but the final goal is just much more motivating.

 Young people in Poland shouldn’t be afraid that they do not have a proper skill set because there’s a very limited group of people who are experienced with the space sector. The space economy will continue to snowball. What was just a dream for most of us now can be a regular career path. I say this often; young graduates shouldn’t be afraid of starting in this career path. Apply for the jobs. At KP Labs, we are open to newbies to learn how to work with the space sector.”

Cybersecurity in Space: Proofing Satellite Systems

With satellite constellations increasing every year, securing systems in space might seem a top priority. Paradoxically, it isn’t the case. Despite great strides in technological innovations, the global space industry hasn’t paid enough attention to cybersecurity. As a result, critical knowledge and infrastructure gaps are raising the alarm and complex questions.

The United States Air Force Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense Digital Service partnered in 2020 to bring visibility to this problem by innovating. They launched an international Capture the flag (CTF) competition – the Space Security challenge Hack-A-Sat. Teams worldwide participated in grueling qualifiers seeking security vulnerabilities for a grand prize. The second iteration – Hack-A-Sat 2, is underway. Led by the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, the finals are scheduled for December.

Hack-A-Sat promo.

The Polish team Poland Can Into Space emerged victorious at the final round of Hack-A-Sat 1, earning second place. The team brought together renowned Polish CTF teams – p4 and Dragon Sector – for the Hack-A-Sat 1 challenge. Roughly 20+ hackers, developers, and cybersecurity engineers, primarily between the ages of 25 – 30 years old, united for the win against 2K+ registered teams. This year, the team is laying the groundwork for another successful competition. Their progress looks promising. They already scored first place in the qualifiers.

An old internet meme – Polandball – inspired the team’s name. The Polandball comics often joked about the lack of a Polish space program with the phrase ‘Poland cannot into space’. The Hack-A Sat Polish team’s mission was to prove this joke wrong from the start.

They work with space-rated software and hardware used for missions and science research, for example, specific CPU architectures such as Sparc LEON, and data protocols like the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) for critical space architecture. As they progress over several qualifiers exploiting vulnerabilities in satellite systems, they earn “flags” (proofs of solution).

As finalists in the Hack-A-Sat 1, Poland Can Into Space competed virtually at DEF CON 29 – one of the most significant cybersecurity events in the world held every year in Las Vegas. The competition scenario was based on a mock-up stolen satellite-in orbit where contestants were challenged to regain control and reorient the satellite’s camera to capture the Moon. Then under strict time constraints, they had to create an actual command set that would be broadcast to space to direct an existing satellite to the Moon. The team developed the best solution for this on-orbit challenge, so their code was broadcasted to space via a live satellite at 6:30 pm PT. They successfully captured an actual photo of the Moon – a moonshot.

The Polish team’s moonshot photo was received on Earth at about 1:00AM PT.

Animation of Poland’s Can Into Space moonshot. 2020.

Thanks to a couple of my Polish friends who passed on my request with their tight-knit networks, I interviewed some team members about their 2020 win and this year’s competition. Their responses showcased what’s at stake for cybersecurity in space and how Poland’s skilled engineers and programmers can leverage this market opportunity.

Only a couple of members in the Polish team had experience working in the space industry, so initially, some of the challenges meant working with a different sense of scale and complexity.

Due to their preferences, I will sometimes use their aliases.

First, said [msm], “space is big.” Unless you’re specifically trained to think with this mindset, learning to work and program for space can prove daunting.

Secondly, [pi3] chimed in, “it must be a miracle that satellites are working and not constantly crashing through the random software exception error.” pi3 noted being surprised about the lack of attention to the quality of critical satellite code.

Stanisław Podgórski is one of the Polish engineers with several years of experience in the space industry. He explained that although it’s easy to hack a satellite because the industry doesn’t regard cybersecurity with the same sense of urgency as other components in the exploration missions, it’s also surprisingly hard.

“I think there is generally little regard for security in space systems, at least for non-military or critical ones. This is partly due to the fact that most people involved in those projects are not security engineers. Traditional software engineers are often not very good at securing their own applications because you can’t be an expert in everything,” said Stanisław.

“Although we didn’t work on classified material, some people did not expect to see how few security measures are actually in place,” he explained. “Space systems are generally designed as a ‘whole package’ and expected to work exactly in that configuration. Since security, in most cases, is still not an ‘essential’ part of the project, you might not even consider involving such an additional security expert. So, this package mindset allows you to cut corners. For example, suppose your student-led cubesat will have a camera. In that case, you might need someone to understand optics and forego security because you know your ground station system only sends valid [data] packets. Thus, there is no clear incentive to design a security system to make complex validations, except for transmission issues. However, we also don’t hear so much about some spectacular space hack because it’s very hard. For example, it’s hard to make proper calculations to predict line-of-sight or to set up a simple communication link or encode/decode a transmission.”

Stanisław’s analysis played out during the 2020 competition. The team accidentally crashed multiple times due to malformed data packets because their software didn’t anticipate it could happen.

Looking ahead, I asked the members about their thoughts about the growing space industry at home and abroad.

[msm] “There are a few promising startups in Poland, but we don’t know them well enough to judge their potential.”

Stanisław offered the following:

“In terms of advantages, speaking more broadly about the whole former Eastern Bloc, there seems to be an overrepresentation of people in top competitive programming contests. I believe it might have something to do with the education system. Many schools can’t afford special equipment for simulations or experiments, so lots of stuff has to be done on paper. As a result, people become somewhat proficient at picking up details, drawing conclusions, and figuring stuff out. The space industry jobs often require knowing very particular technologies. But overall, the publicity of such challenges helps build awareness among space project managers. This visibility might prompt them to consider security as one of the key aspects to think about in space missions.”

Conclusions: Are You Paying Attention Yet?

Something is shifting in the winds for Poland’s space scene. And I suspect it has to do with this generational capacity to bootstrap and figure it out along the way. Rockets or launch pads may not be built in Poland at the moment, but slowly, new space companies are emerging and are strategically leveraging decades of experience as leaders in the software, IT, and gaming sectors.

KP Labs is an example of an innovative startup building cutting-edge hardware and AI-powered software for autonomous space missions. Polish cybersecurity teams are already competing and winning in the world stage, bringing to light the importance of proofing satellite systems. Their wins reflect opportunities for growth in Poland in cybersecurity for space. What needs to catch up now is the capital and the public support at home and worldwide. Poland can do space.

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The artist featured in the article is Oleg Danylenko. Oleg is originally from Ukraine and has Polish ancestry. A self-taught artist currently based in Krakow, Oleg created “Returning to Docking Bay” in March 2021.

About his inspiration, Oleg responded:

“Actually, art and design allow us to create and show the audience things that don’t present in our daily life or even don’t exist. The universe has no limits, neither does imagination. That is how we can compare them. A long time ago, tribes were building ships to sail deep unknown waters, and nowadays, many geographical places on Earth have been discovered. Now we can rotate our planet using Google Earth and instantly get to nearly everywhere. But we know nothing about what lies beyond the Earth. Like our ancestors knew nothing about what lies there, after the horizon, looking at the ocean. We are only at the very beginning of sailing oceans of space. But imagination and art help us to see this goal crystal clear and make this dream closer to reality.”

//

Editorial disclosure: I don’t have any vested financial interests in the companies or projects discussed in this article at the time of publication (November 2021). I don’t entertain affiliate marketing offers or paid endorsements that would influence my research. Article originally published on Hacker Noon.

Since you’ve enjoyed this article, allow me to invite you to my space blog. It’s designed to be ad-free, independently published, and, more importantly, showcasing original research and artwork. Be inspired by the possibilities of our future in space. Join the wait list now, and don’t miss out on the opportunity to read it before the general release. Sign up here.

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