Public Service Review: European Science and Technology - Issue 11
Written in the stars?
08 July 2011
Editor Amy Caddick speaks to the European Space Agency's Franco Ongaro about the ever-expanding future of space technologies
People and their robot surrogates have been venturing off the planet for more than half a century. This ongoing exploration has returned many benefits to Earth, inspiring entire industries along the way.
Waking up each morning and watching TV distributed from orbit, catching a weather report based on meteorological satellites, getting steered to an appointment by navigation satellites and the brakes slowing a person's car may well be manufactured from composite material first engineered for re-entering spacecraft (also in widespread use by aircraft). Just stopping to draw cash from an ATM and one may be making use of a space-based communication network.
Small wonder then that governments are keen to encourage space development. Within Europe, the 18 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) agree that working together yields the best results.
Franco Ongaro oversees many innovations at ESA. The agency's Director of Technical and Quality Management, as well as heading up ESA's European Space Technology and Engineering Centre (ESTEC) at Noordwijk in the Netherlands, Ongaro is charged with developing the new technologies bringing advanced space missions and applications into the realm of the possible.
Ongaro stresses that the products of this research are increasingly utilised in everyday life: "There are certainly born innovators out there, but by and large technological state-of-the-art tends to stay as it is until there is a challenge needing something invented to meet it, and space is the most challenging environment imaginable. So space research provides a unique motivation to find new solutions allowing us to do things that no one has been thinking about or realising they were possible before.
"This year marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space," Ongaro continues. "Gagarin was only in space for less than two hours; today people have been living aboard the International Space Station continuously for more than 10 years. The kind of view enjoyed by Gagarin during his flight has since become a standardised information tool, with satellites returning images of the Earth for use across many disciplines, from meteorologists to urban planners, farmers to disaster response teams.
'We have to be able to support the strategic and commercial dimensions of space within which Europe excels and clearly identify basic research that will support our industrial competitiveness.'
"In addition, other space missions are peering much further: ESA's Planck mission is currently gathering data on what the Universe looked like just after the Big Bang, measuring tiny variations in the coldness of deep space. How do you go about creating an incredibly-complex mission like that?
"There are a vast number of technological innovations needed to achieve this goal – and we create all these new technologies because of this initial challenge. Equally important is that the resulting technology flows into other areas and gets exploited to improve other systems, in space and on Earth."
Telecommunications and meteorology are long-established examples of indispensable space-based services. The last decade saw satellite navigation become similarly indispensable, a development that led ESA and the EU to set up Europe's own Galileo satellite navigation system, a development that ESA carries out on behalf of the European Commission. These fields followed similar patterns of evolution, with initial scientific experimentation leading to trial services, which became self-sustaining. ESA is a research and development organisation, so the commercial exploitation of new services are transferred to other organisations, like world-leading telecommunication companies such as Inmarsat and Eutelsat, or the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) for weather services, or Arianespace for the European launcher family.
"Space applications are vital in telecommunications and now navigations, but we are now moving into areas that are less well known," explains Ongaro. "For example, people may think that knowing the depth of snow on the Alps is not really that important, but that information tells us how much water there will be in spring, and how much water will be available in the spring for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. Such information would be prohibitively expensive (and dangerous) to collect on the ground, but by satellite is a by-product of other data collection. New space applications, born from the integration of the data and services of various space-based systems, will revolutionise fields as diverse as major disaster prediction, monitoring and intervention, energy production and distribution, provision of medical services, etc."
So, where do the new technologies enabling such services come from? Basic research proceeds all over Europe, with ESA working directly with companies, universities and research institutions: 90% of all agency spending goes on contracts with industry and academia with around 1,000 contracts issued per year.
The agency has a dedicated programme to support promising new concepts – known as the Basic Technology Research Programme – with another to shift prototype technologies toward flight readiness, called the General Studies Technology Programme, with further R&D programmes dedicated to specific space activities such as telecommunications.
Overall ESA R&D is guided by a series of 'technology roadmaps' – written in cooperation with European experts and stakeholders – that define the technology development to enable future missions or improve current technology. Member states might select particular research activities based on their technical strengths and industrial priorities, but each individual success also boosts European capabilities as a whole.
"Space research is not something that can continue meaningfully without ongoing collaboration," says Ongaro. "The European member states achieve a lot more working together than apart, and this is why they created ESA. Local industry supports and contributes to ESA's global reach."
On a mandate from its member states ESA also cooperates with other partners within and beyond Europe: Canada, for example, has a longstanding cooperation agreement, as well as some European countries that are not yet ESA member states, but partnerships have also been forged with space agencies worldwide.
"This makes more sense because common resources are better utilised to get data that all researchers can examine for the benefit of humankind, as with the International Space Station, the biggest international collaboration ever."
Such partnerships make technology development more vital than ever, Ongaro explains: "We have to be able to support the strategic and commercial dimensions of space within which Europe excels and clearly identify basic research that will support our industrial competitiveness. If you've got nothing to offer research-wise then you're not much of a partner on the international stage."
Surprisingly perhaps, the space industry workforce is comparatively small: "There are about 30,000 Europeans employed directly," says Ongaro. "Therefore, the space industry has a big everyday impact on the life of European citizens, but its industrial visibility is low with respect to other sectors."
However, the space sector is one of the highest value-added elements of the European economy. One analysis of the British space sector found that every space industry job indirectly creates three additional jobs in other sectors. Space R&D also benefits terrestrial industries. ESA's Technology Transfer Programme Office oversees commercial 'spin-off' activities with a European network of technology brokers and business incubation centres.
Despite its economic significance, Ongaro argues that young people need more pushing to consider space as a career: "It's a very diversified industry with a lot of special competencies, and we have to do a better job in attracting new talent.
"The main problem with space activities is that results are often not seen for a long time. We don't launch a new mobile phone every six months; we launch a new generation of satellites every five or 10 years. Space is an enormously attractive job but you need a high level of dedication."
Against that, as US rocket pioneer Robert Goddard once wrote: '…aiming at the stars, both figuratively and literally, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.'
It is a thrill Ongaro is familiar with: "From looking at the far reaches of the Universe to understanding the interaction of land and sea with the atmosphere and the climate, we have new challenges every day," he concludes. "Space technologies have advanced enormously in the last 50 years, and I don't see any slowing down in their future development, nor in the benefits that they bring."