#LoveIrishResearch BLOG: Space research, why is it important?

Jan Woerner is Director General at the European Space Agency. He previously served as Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). In June 2016, the Irish Research Council signed a partnership with the European Space Agency that will give Irish science and engineering graduates a chance to make their mark in the field of space exploration.

I am happy to contribute to the Irish Research Council’s blog shortly after the decisions taken earlier this month by ministers from our member states in Lucerne, Switzerland.

What I witnessed at the recent Council meeting at ministerial level in Lucerne was Europe at its best, with 22 ministers discussing and agreeing on a joint innovation agenda in all areas of ESA’s activities, including Space Science, Exploration, Launchers, Technology, Space Traffic Management and many applications such as Telecommunications, Earth Observation and Navigation.

Over time, these areas of technology and applications have become commercial and sometimes quite competitive endeavours, but they are all based on the curiosity and unwavering work by scientists over many years. Science is about exploring the unknown and about creating knowledge, with robots and satellites being our proxies.

Take Rosetta for example, our comet chaser that has produced a wealth of data to help scientists answer fundamental questions about the origin and evolution of our Solar System, including the origin of water and life on Earth. Or our ExoMars mission, which has just arrived at Mars and will soon begin studying the composition of the Martian atmosphere and will, in a few years from now, carry out the first sub-surface investigations on whether life exists or could have existed on the Red Planet.

Where will we go next? BepiColombo will fly in two years’ time to Mercury to help us learn how planets close to a star come about. Further down the road we plan the Cheops mission to study planets outside our own solar system. I look forward to our continued cooperation with NASA to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor of Hubble, which will be launched with a European Ariane 5 rocket. The Solar Orbiter mission will study the Sun and its heliosphere, Euclid will help us understand the nature of ‘dark energy’, and Juice will study Jupiter’s icy moons.

All these missions have been proposed by European scientific groups and have gone through a selection process that guarantees the best scientific output. At the same time, they push technology developments to the extremes: landing on a comet, orbiting the hottest planet of the solar system, mapping 100 million stars with Gaia, or mapping the cosmos as it was shortly after the Big Bang with Planck are not trivial tasks.

The International Space Station (ISS) can now count on having European research on board until 2024, to help prepare long-duration astronaut missions, pave the way for future lunar and Martian outposts while yielding scientific benefits on Earth applications. This includes the European Service Module for the NASA Orion spacecraft for human travel towards the Moon and asteroids.

But we look out to the Universe as much as we look down to our own planet from space. The new phase of the Earth Watch Programme approved in Lucerne allows us to extend and improve global records of Essential Climate Variables (ECV) to support climate science and policy. The fifth Earth Observation Envelope Programme gives green light to prepare the next-generation Explorer missions that will provide critical information to safeguard the future of our planet. Earth Observation-derived information is strategic and it provides a competitive advantage to Europe well beyond the space domain, while creating jobs and economic growth.

Irish scientists have been involved with ESA since it was formed in 1975, and Irish companies have distinguished themselves in fields such as electronics, software, and propulsion, but the best opportunities may yet lie ahead. Technology transfer to and from Space are also effective multipliers of public investments. For example, an Irish-developed thermal control coating originally developed for medical implants is set to allow satellites to stay cool and help them to operate at optimal efficiency. This work with ESA has also helped to inspire a growing number of terrestrial applications for the coating technology, from helping electronic systems keep their cool to corrosion-proofing oil and gas equipment in tough marine environments.

Given the Irish Research Council’s role in cultivating the pipeline of future research leaders across all disciplines, I was particularly delighted to sign earlier in the year a traineeship agreement between ESA and the Council.  The agreement will provide opportunities for young men and women from the Irish R&D community to come to ESA sites around Europe and collaborate on exciting space projects and innovative technology developments with our experienced, top-class staff.

The recently opened ESA Business Incubation Centre in Cork is a promising platform to help start-up entrepreneurs use space data and technologies for terrestrial uses. The Space Studies Programme of the International Space University to be hosted at Cork in 2017 with ESA support will also be an excellent opportunity for Irish academia and industry to showcase to the many participants from around the world. The European Space Education Resource Office Ireland promotes space as a theme to inspire and engage young people in STEM subjects, and I trust it is being used by a growing number of school teachers in Ireland. 

In conclusion, I am proud that our member state ministers have renewed ESA’s mandate and released the resources to enable the European scientific community to achieve and sustain excellence in science and technology. I wish to see ESA as a constant source of inspiration, fascination and motivation for Europe at large; and be a pillar in the creation and maintenance of space skills and capabilities, including advanced technologies that are key for the competitiveness of European industry on the worldwide scene.