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Space in Sweden
SpaceOps 2012
Swedish Remote Sensing

High noon in the Gobi desert – the story of a Swedish satellite.
(Text by Stefan Zenker. From the book “Space is our place- 25th anniversary of Swedish Space Corporation” in 1997.)
(Added to this page 9th of February 2009)

In 1992 China launched a Swedish satellite called Freja. This is the story of the launch:

“Actually, it was 2 o´clock in the afternoon of 6 October 1992 when Freja was launched. But such a headline would sound slightly flat, wouldn´t it? What must be conveyed is the spine-tingling wait for the showdown in the simmering desert heat. It had been a long wait. Our team had been at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre for 48 days preparing for the launch. Adding to the pressure, a Swedish VIP group had arrived to witness the launch.

Our team had coped well with the strain of staying in such a remote place. They had overcome the difficulties of unfamiliar food, an incomprehensive language and cultural deprivation. Perhaps there had been depravation as well under the desert stars – two of our team later got married!

The countdown clock inexorably counted off the hours, minutes and seconds, although at the VIP site nothing was heard. There was only Chinese music on the loudspeaker until the rocket suddenly blasted off. Sven Grahn gave a live commentary by phone for the benefit of our anxiously waiting team at home, at Esrange. Peter Rathsman got so excited that he was invited by his polite Chinese hosts to please not make so much noise on the intercom system!

One by one the scheduled events occurred: The main satellite separated. The launch vehicle turned to eject Freja into a slightly different trajectory, avoiding collision. Freja separated.

After one full orbit, a signal was heard. It sounded familiar, but Sven Grahn fretted that it might come from a Russian satellite. Finally all doubt dissolved when the signal cut off an agonising 23 seconds behind schedule.

The success was complete, when during the following months and years Freja performed like clockwork, gathering valuable scientific data for the different research groups. By the way, data were not just collected at Esrange. A Japanese satellite station on an island just off Antarctica also collected data.

Freja finally ceased to function in 1996 after more than four years of operation – twice its design lifetime.

From the book: "Europe´s space programme" by Brian Harvey.
(2003)(Springer-Praxis books in astronomy and space sciences) 
(I recommend you to buy the book!)  


Swedish space research has strong theoretical roots ( Swedish Interplanetary Society), a practical basis (ionospheric observations began in Kiruna in 1948) and an amateur role (rockets were fired from forest clearings in 1962). The first systematic rocket firings were made from a derelict farm called Kronogaard over 1962-64, and it was the original engineers from this group who later generated and sustained the Swedish space effort thereafter.


Sweden´s northerly location meant that it was ideally suited for research into the magnetosphere, ionosphere and aurorae. Sweden joined ESRO in 1962 and part of the arrangement was that Sweden opened a rocket range for ESRO iappropriately called ESRANGE in 1966. This was located in low, rolling, often snowy hills in Kiruna, in northern Sweden at 67 degree N.

Kiruna was a town that had suffered from the decline of ore-mining and urgently needed diversification. Not only was the rocket range located there but so too were the Geophysical Institute, scientific radar systems, tracking systems and data-handling centers. Over 800 sounding rockets have now (up to the year 2003) been fired from there in campaigns involving the different European countries, USA and the Soviet Union. In 1971 Sweden bought back ESRANGE from ESRO. 

The Swedish Space Corporation.

These early activities led over time to the Swedish Space Corporation ( Svenska Rymdbolaget) founded in July 1972. (In the original text in the book the company is called "Svenska Rymbola", which is kind of funny). The corporation played an important role in directing Swedish space activities around a number of core areas that were suited to Swedens´s location and economic situation. The Swedish Space Corporation is based in Solna, a city close to Stockholm, but space activities happen in Kiruna.

Sweden and ESA.

Sweden joined ESA at its formation and decided to participate in the L3S Ariane rocket. Volvo Aero (Then named Volvo Flygmotor) built the combustion chambers, Saab Space ( Then named Saab Ericsson Space) built the inertial guidance computer. Other companies became involved in OTS and Meteosat. 


Granted Sweden´s early involvement in European space activities, it was no surprise that the idea of an early Swedish satellite came quickly onto the agenda. Sweden made its first satellite study in 1970. Ten years later the government decision was taken that Sweden should develop its own earth satellite, modelled on NASAs atmospheric Explorers. Swedish instruments had already flown on soviet satellites (Prognoz and Intercosmos 16).

Appropriately for a Nordic country the first satellite was named Viking and it had payloads for the study  of electric and magnetic fields, particle and magnetospheric waves and the northerns lights. Costs were kept down by the use of already-proven instruments and equipment. The Boeing company was invited to work with Saab to build the satellite. 


"Viking" was in the shape of a flat octagon, 550 kg in weight, 1,9 m long and 0,5 m high, with four 40-m wire booms for electrical field experiments. The satellite was launched piggyback on Ariane. It was designed to work for eight months, but in fact it worked over a year. Viking sent back over 20.000 images of the northern lights to the ground station in Kiruna, including images of what the northern lights look like from above.


Sweden´s  second satellite, Freja, was launched by China from Jiuquan launch site in October 1992, piggyback on the Fanhui Shi Weixing 1-4 recoverable spacecraft. Freja, named after the Viking goddess of fertility, was a 259 kg spacecraft based on the Viking model with seven experiments to continue the study of aurorae, electrical and magnetic fields, particles, plasma and the magnetosphere, as well as carrying an experimental store-and-forward communications experiment.

This launch provided one of the first opportunities for Westerners to visit Jiuquan. The visiting Swedish team got a telephone line to their collegues back home and gave an exited live commentary of the launching.


The Astrid satellites were scaled-down versions of Freja and named after the author Astrid Lindgren. Astrid 1 weighed only 28 kg, cost 1 million euros and took a piggyback ride on a Coemos 3M from Plesetsk in 1995, whence its three experiments went on to study magnetopheric particles and aurorae. Its successor Astrid 2 was slightly larger at 35 kg and carried four experments. Astrid 2 was launched 1998.


ODIN was a 250 kg atmospheric research and astronomy satellite launched from Svobodny cosmodrome in Siberia into its intended polar orbit in 2001. ODIN was 2 m tall, 1,1 m wide and with its solar arrays spanned 3,8 m. It looked like a box, with a dish on top and flat-vaned solar arrays on the bottom. ODIN was to study the atmosphere and ozone depletion and used a 1,1 m telescopeto study star formation as well.

ODIN followed in the tradition of Viking and Freja of veratile, small and low-cost spacecraft.



A particular problem faced by the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway is communications. Their relatively small, low-density populations are spread out over a vast area. The journey from northern to southern Sweden is the same distance as from Copenhagen to Rome. Such a distance offered an opportunity for the development of satellite technologies. This was something that these countries were quick to grasp and gave leading companies an opportunity to specialize in advanced communications.

The first study on satellite communications was done in 1974. A feasibility study of an operational satellite for all the Nordic countries was done in 1977. This ran into many obstacles, but was salvaged as an experimental satellite in 1980 called Tele-X.

The idea of Tele-X was to develop direct broadcasting, satellite-based computer links, telephone services, mobile telex, picture telephones, small-terminal development and facsimile transmission of newspapers. Tele-X was a 2,3-tonne spacecraft with large solar panels measuring 20 m by 5 m. This was mainly a Swedish project (82 % of costs), but was also supported by Norway (15 %) and Finland (3 %). Tele-X was used for the transmission of public and private TV channels and for the publication of the newspaper Aftonbladet ("The Evening Paper").

Despite the success of Tele-X, a united, Nordic operational system was slow to develop. Eventually, the Swedish Space Corporation took part with Luxembourg´s "Sociéty Européenne des Satellites" in the provision of telecommunications for the Nordic and Baltic regions through the Sirius 1, 2 and 3 comsats. In effect, Sirius became the operational system for the Nordic countries originally projected in the 1970s.  


Remote-sensing has also been a priority for Sweden, a country conscious of the fragility of its forests and waters. The first remote-sensing experiments were carried out on sounding rockets from ESRANGE in 1973. At the same time, a remote sensing station was set up in Kiruna, initially to receive American Landsat data, later to become the national remote-sensing centre.

Sweden was well disposed to support European projects in the area of Earth resources. When France proposed the SPOT programme to ESA in 1977, Sweden supported the idea. SPOT went ahead as a national French project, but because of its interest and support France broadened the programme to include Sweden who made the computer (Saab -Scania). A Swedish company was set up with SPOT to market the satellite´s data (Satellitbild). In the course of time Sweden became France´s largest bilateral partner, mainly in the areas of remote-sensing and telecommunications.


The years 1979-2002.

There was a significant expansion in Swedish space activities from 1979, when it was decided to treble the budget. The Swedish National Space Board presented a long-term plan in 1984 for the period to 1991, a plan that emphasized the importance of promoting space technology within Swedish industry. Volvo´s aerospace division "Volvo Flygmotor" (now Volvo Aero) was a major subcontractor for the Ariane, making the combustion chamber in the Viking engines and for the Ariane 5. Instruments for scientific probes were built by "Institutet för rymdfysik" (IRF) (Institute for Space Physics).

Sweden operates a tracking and balloon-launching station at ESRANGE, which follows about 40 passes a day from satellites in polar orbit and has a 50 % share in Norway´s Tromsö station and its subsidiary in Svalbard. There is an ESA station at Salmijärvi 6 km from Kiruna.

Sweden has its own astronaut. Dr Christer Fuglesang was selected as an ESA astronaut in 1992 and first trained in Moscow for the EuroMir missions. After that he has received a NASA-training. He visited the international space station in December 2006.

Updated 18/06/2012
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