If a month ago we had asked the inhabitants of La Palma what Copernicus is, they would probably have spoken of a great Renaissance astronomer. However, now, in the middle of the eruption of the Cabeza de Vaca volcano, many of them already know that this constellation of satellites of the European Space Agency (ESA, for its acronym in English) has been vital to offer real-time information of the progress of the laundry, prepare evacuations, know how the volcano is behaving and, finally, make informed decisions on the ground.
Josef Aschbacher (Ellmau, Austria, 59 years) is the Director General of ESA since December 2020 and thus run a monster with 22 Member states, 230.000 employees and dozens of millionaire projects on Earth and the Moon, Mars, Mercury and the Sun. But he is especially proud of Copernicus, for whom he was directly responsible. “It is the best Earth observation program in the world,” he says. “Europe can be very proud of him.”
Aschbacher is visiting Madrid to speak with the Minister of Science, Diana Morant, and make sure that “from a perspective politics ”ESA meets the needs of Spain. When Pedro Duque was still minister, Spain announced the creation of its own space agency, something that Aschbacher values with caution: “This is a decision of Spain, it is something internal. I have taken note, let’s say it like this. ”
In this interview with EL PAÍS, Aschbacher speaks directly and openly about the great challenges of the agency, beginning by convincing European politicians about something that the Americans and the Chinese are increasingly clear about: the strategic value of space.
Question . How is Copernicus helping to manage the La Palma volcano crisis?
Answer. Copernicus is a constellation of observation satellites with different instruments that we have built during the last 20 years. And our main concern has been that it was designed according to the needs of the people. We have had very long and very intensive consultations with the user community across Europe to make sure that our satellites are responding to what people need. And people told us that we need information to make decisions in agriculture, for the control and management of disasters, the observation of the oceans and fishing, and also for the climate and the decarbonization of the planet.
What is happening on La Palma is exactly what Copernicus was designed for: to provide images in the event of disasters to inform citizens of what the situation is, but also to help them. Emergency services and civil protection agencies can find out which areas are no longer accessible, or which roads and bridges are open, and find ways to help people on the ground. What is really fundamental, the most beautiful thing about Copernicus, is that, despite the large investment involved, the data we provide is free for all citizens. It is something that Europe offers as a service to its people.
What is happening on La Palma is exactly what Copernicus was designed for
Q. And can a constellation of satellites like Copernicus help us not only to manage crises like this, but to prevent them?
R. Obviously, if there is an erupting volcano or an earthquake, the satellite cannot stop it. But, in some cases, we can predict the coming crisis, especially if we have done early work. We can know a few hours in advance when an earthquake is coming, for example. Also in floods, fires or storms; we can identify high-risk areas, predict when they will come and what their path will be. And obviously that means improving warnings to citizens and saving lives and money to minimize damage.
Q. What about security? Is there a country in Europe that is using these satellites for defense or border control?
A. There are. But if I compare Europe with the United States, China, Russia, India or any other country, in Europe we are not using space to the extent that we could in this field. Some countries do, Spain for example, but in the United States, approximately half of the space budget is allocated to security or defense. In Russia and China, the figure is very similar. In Europe, it is a very small fraction.
R. It is a purely political question because Europe it has a very small security policy. Not much money has been spent to strengthen and implement it and this is the result. This is happening on the ground, and the same in space.
P. And do you have any plans to convince politicians that that must change?
R. The good news is that Europe has the capacity to further strengthen its security. We have the satellites, the technology, we can do it. The question is: Do politicians want us to do it? And this is a question for them. I am a space man, here we build the assets that are required, but this is, above all, a political discussion. Yes, it is true that I would like to promote it and I would like it to happen because I believe that Europe is under-utilizing the capacity it has in space. We could do much more, at a low price. And we could do much more if politicians gave us the green light to do so.
Europe is under-utilizing its capacity in space. We could do much more, at a low price
P. In fact, in the ESA document Agenda 2025 , where the agency sets its goals for that year, says precisely that one of them is to reinforce “the relationships between ESA and the European Union ”. Why is it necessary?
R. Yes, it is a priority. In fact, it is the first on the list. Some people say it shouldn’t be, because there are more technical issues to consider. But from a political point of view, for me, this is an absolute priority. In the past, and I think it is no secret, the relationship and collaboration between the European Union and ESA has not always been optimal. When I was working at Copernicus, I tried to make that collaboration always work, we have succeeded and I think it is a good example. The European Commission and the European Union have strength, something that ESA has never had. They are a political body. They define priorities for Europe from a political, economic and social point of view. This is the work of the European Union with the European Commission. And that’s great, but that’s not ESA’s job. We are a technical agency. We build spaceships, rockets and space hardware . Therefore, I take these priorities of the European Commission as a starting point, and then we build our space infrastructure based on these priorities expressed by the European Commission. There are also other issues on which we must work together, and a very relevant one is the decarbonisation of Europe. All EU countries aim to be carbon neutral by mid-century. How can we do it? Of course, it is necessary to convert diesel cars to electric and coal plants to ones that produce more sustainable energy, but space can do a lot, too. And in addition to observing the situation, we can create what I call a digital twin of our planet.
P. A digital twin?
R. Yes, it is about simulating the Earth on a large computer. I know it sounds like science fiction, and it is because it doesn’t exist yet and it’s not easy to do. The idea is to give politicians and citizens the ability to simulate our planet and supposed scenarios, to know “what if”. Suppose carbon neutrality for 2050 is our goal. What does Spain need to do to achieve this? You can analyze agriculture, traffic, energy. It is a smart way to know if it is better to optimize traffic in one way, or to convert one agricultural crop into another, without impacting people’s lives. We call it “accelerator”. When building this accelerator, we saw that if you optimize the traffic routes of cars, boats and trucks you can already save between a 10% and a 15% of carbon in Europe. With the same number of elements, but optimizing them. That is tremendous. And we do it by simply doing the same thing, but in a smarter way. It’s a great project.
In the past, and I think it’s not a secrecy, the relationship and collaboration between the European Union and ESA has not always been optimal
Q. When will it be operational?
R. Now we are starting to work on it. Before the end of the year, I hope to sign an agreement with the European Commission and in the first phase we will obtain some 150 million euros. In addition, member states will contribute to and complement these Commission investments; Simulations may be carried out in the first years, but it is a long-term project, lasting more than ten years. We need a few more satellites to improve the observation, but it is the next step for Copernicus and it is a very ambitious, very exciting project. And by the way, the same concept will also apply to disasters and crises.
P. You are the director of the European Space Agency, but we carry 20 minutes talking about the Earth …
R. Well, the Earth is also in space … But it is true that in Europe, classically, we focus a lot on the planet and its sustainability. In the US, the Moon and Mars are the most important targets. Europe is also working on it, but not as much as the United States. And there yes, we have to increase our ambition. I’m going to give you a number to put it in context. In Europe we spend 8% of the money that the US invests in space exploration. 8% is not a lot of money because the economy is more or less the same. So the question is: What does Europe want to do? Want to be a very small NASA partner? Or do you want to be a more ambitious partner? I am not saying that we multiply by 10 investments, this is impossible. But we certainly need to increase them gradually so as not to be too small. Because the United States increases them, China also increases, and if Europe does not do so, we will fall off the starting grid and we will be left behind. As ESA Director General, this is something I take very seriously. There is a lot of related economic growth. Jobs, high-tech jobs, technology development, export opportunities. 4% of Europe’s workforce works on space-related issues and this is producing an economic return of, depending on the sector, up to 30%. And this is amazing. Europe has a lot of talent and a lot of excellence, but we are not always converting it or using it to its full extent. And that is why I firmly believe that Europe needs to invest more in space, to be at the forefront, to be a space power. Because if you are not a space power, you cannot be a world power. Europe has to accelerate and catch up with the others.
P. And is ESA also interested in private space exploration? NASA collaborates intensively with companies like SpaceX and the business is growing a lot…
R. This is the big change that has happened in the last 10 years: NASA has worked very differently with the commercial sector. And what they have fact is pretty smart, I have to say. NASA is doing both; they are still developing rockets, say, in the classic way. But in parallel, they have also helped develop other rockets and then buy launches. And in this way SpaceX was created. And don’t forget one thing: people think of SpaceX as a commercial company. And yes, it is, but the US has given it 12. 000 million dollars to develop and then buy the releases. And this is a great investment. We don’t have that much money in Europe, but I wish we had done something similar. I will develop a very strong business sector in Europe, although of course our dimension is smaller, I have to be realistic. In any case, the principle is the same: I also want to act more as a customer and let the industry come up with the solutions. And this will be a big change. It is exactly what we need, also in Europe.
What does Europe want to do ? Want to be a very small NASA partner? Or do you want to be a more ambitious partner?
P. On his schedule for 2025, he also talks about making an organization more diverse. Does it mean that Europe is going to put a woman on the moon, as NASA announced?
R. That is my dream or my wish. Diversity is a high priority; the environment and diversity are the big stakes in how I want to transform ESA. When it comes to gender, I want to dramatically increase the recruitment of women in the future, even beyond what is normally the standard in STEM [ciencia, tecnología, ingeniería y matemáticas]. Of course, quality is always the number one criterion, but if you have people of similar qualifications, I would prefer that they hire a woman, because we really need diversity.
Q. And when will we have a European astronaut stepping on the Moon?
R. That is a very good question. It not only depends on us, it also depends on NASA because we will do it with them. But I hope to get a first European astronaut to the Moon before the end of this decade. And I also hope that that astronaut is a woman.
P. The ESA decided last year to delay its ExoMars mission to search for life on Mars until 2022. Is this the final date?
R. September 2022 is the goal, yes, and by the way, we will do it with the Russians. This is very interesting to know: many years ago we needed some technology, which we did not get from the United States. And we had no choice but to go to Russia. Therefore, this ExoMars project is implemented together with Roscosmos. It will be the largest rover to ever exist on Mars, and it will be very complex with many instruments. One of them will pierce the surface of Mars 1.7 meters. No one has ever drilled that deep. Imagine: you will drill, take a sample from the surface, put it in a laboratory on Mars, and analyze what is there. It will be very exciting.
P. Have all ExoMars issues been resolved?
R. Not at all. We are still working on some, to be honest with you. We have to sit down, we still have problems to solve. But we are both [Roscosmos y ESA] committed to solving them. There is a lot of pressure on the engineers and the various teams in Russia and in Europe to make sure we don’t miss out on this opportunity, because if we miss this release, the next one is two years later. I am committed to launching it in September next year.
Q. They are also working with NASA on an exciting project: bringing samples from Mars to Earth.
R. Can you imagine? Right now there is a rover , Perseverance , that is taking samples . He leaves them on the ground. Someone picks them up, puts them into orbit, leaves them there, alone, and then another satellite flies in, picks them up, brings them to Earth, and then drops them through the atmosphere to the ground. Is incredible. It is very exciting from a technological point of view.
4% of the Europe’s workforce works on space-related issues and this is producing an economic return of, depending on the sector, up to 30%. And this is amazing
P. Another very important ongoing project is the telescope James Webb , that has suffered a multitude of delays…
R. The release date, as of today, is 18 December. And I am very confident that we will succeed. But you have to be very careful, because it is a great mission: 10. 000 million dollars, a project of 20 years, the largest telescope that has ever flown to observe the universe, and very complex instrumentation. I am proud that NASA relies on ESA to launch it on an Ariane 5 rocket, but this is a very precious cargo and we have to make sure it is a success. Each mission has to be, but, of course, if it has this dimension you are very, very, very, very careful and you make sure that everything goes well.
Q. What can we expect to see?
R. We can look at 200 millions of years ago. And this is amazing. Can you imagine looking back and seeing almost the starting point of how the universe was created? It will answer one of the fundamental questions: Where do we come from? We will explore the universe and better understand what it means to be on this planet within it.
P. Imagine we speak in four years, when your current term at the helm of ESA ends. What would you like to be your main achievement in this period?
R. That Europe has taken a step forward in space.
P. And does that mean …?
R. It means that space is used much more in society. The space today is underused; We need to increase our investment to be an even stronger partner.
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