What are the advantages of space travel
Without your own missiles you are dependent on others
Jan Wörner, the new corona virus has so far only spread across the globe. But the pandemic also has an impact on space research. How did ESA react, what had to be postponed, what changed, what suspended?
We changed our way of working very early, at the beginning of March. At first we massively increased teleworking and later made it mandatory from March 16. That wasn't a problem for us because we've always teleworked. So that the industry would not suffer, we made the payments, which were stipulated in the contract, two times faster. This was possible because there was greater acceptance of digital processes in the pandemic. In this sense, the pandemic has also brought us benefits. But it also gave us a few disadvantages.
With teleworking and home office you can work through many processes quickly and securely. But some things hardly work at all, especially creative teamwork. I notice that as General Manager. Our job is to develop strategies for the unknown. And the creativity that is necessary for this is very difficult to develop over a distance. I have a big problem with that personally.
Darmstadt was particularly critical because we have the satellite control center here. We can't just stop there.
How many satellites are controlled from here?
19 satellites for 16 missions. This ranges from the Sentinel earth observation satellites to planetary missions such as Mars Express and the Solar Orbiter, which is currently flying very close to the sun.
Were there moments when satellites flew without human control or even had to be put into sleep mode?
We haven't put a mission on hold. Only with the Solar Orbiter there was a small shift. And the processing and dissemination of scientific data has been reduced somewhat. But that was restarted after two or three weeks. Classic satellite operations continued.
How did you organize that?
Wear with physical distancing and masks. And a reduction in on-site presence. The problem is not so much the workplaces themselves. You can see for yourself how safe it is here in Darmstadt. But to get here, many depend on local public transport. This is even more true for locations like Paris. Actually, we wanted to start operations again on September 1st. Because the risk is growing in view of the increasing number of infections, we are postponing this for another month.
The Kourou spaceport in South America is a major problem. Because of the high number of infections there, we only allow very few, indispensable ESA employees to fly to the take-offs. And there are also delays in the construction of the launch base for Ariane 6.
Has Corona also brought advantages for the ESA, apart from the digitization push? Was there something in the cornucopia of the Corona aid programs for ESA?
No, not so far, certainly also because we continued. But I think there will be something more to come.
Given the threat posed by the virus, what has space exploration done for the world's population? Was there any technology that could be used?
We immediately started thinking about what we can do about the pandemic. One of the themes is earth observation. We observed the emissions, and from the improvement in the ecological situation one could also deduce how bad the economy was doing. We then organized events with the astronauts in which they explained how best to get through situations of isolation. Basically, they live in isolation in the space station.
What were those suggestions?
This may sound trivial to some, but it has been helpful for others. It was about things like structuring the daily routine. We have received a lot of positive feedback on this. Another aspect was that we used our 3D printer to make protective masks. We have sent a mobile medical laboratory to Lombardy that can not only carry out many analyzes, but also send the results immediately via satellite communication. Nothing is recorded manually. We recently saw how important that is. We also brought in our experience in telemedicine. And then we developed the RACE dashboard from the earth observation data, RACE means RAPID Action Coronavirus Earth Observation, in which we collect the data from numerous European environmental satellites and make them available to the public.
Anyone can get it? Free?
Not free, but free of charge. And everyone can use it. In the meantime, Japan and the USA have also joined. This is something that was not developed by Google or other companies, but here in Europe. And the others join in.
Carrier systems are required for space research. There's a lot of movement now. Which systems should ESA rely on: its own systems such as the Ariane or would you prefer commercial providers in the USA such as SpaceX or Boeing? Or even the Russian Soyuz or the Long March from China? What does the director general recommend?
Manufacturing missiles in Europe is a strategic decision. It's about independence. It all goes back to the Symphony satellite.
... It was sent into space in 1974 ...
That was a European satellite that was launched with the Americans. And then they said that the data should not be used commercially. That stuck in the collective memory: We have to be independent. The situation is different now. You have to add India to the providers in the east. So there are many ways to buy missiles. Nevertheless, this independence is beneficial, also because it gives you the appropriate industrial capacity.
What are ESA's main goals: Moon or Mars? Sun or Earth Observation?
As Director General, I will never say that one program is the most important thing, because I am equally responsible for all of them. It is clear that we are scientifically looking deep into our solar system and beyond. In exploration we go in three directions: there is the International Space Station, the moon and Mars. Of course, we also want to bring Europeans to the moon within the next ten years. And of course the issue of security in space is important. We have a situation that, in my opinion, receives far too little attention from the public.
What do you mean by that?
One example is the solar storms. If a real solar storm like the one in the USA in 1859 comes, our entire power grid would be massively endangered. We had a similar situation in Canada in 1989. And mines were triggered by solar storms during the Vietnam War. I was very saddened that at the last ministerial round I did not get all the money to work there. Then we have the space junk. There is not only a question of who it belongs to, but also that it is endangering the satellites. They are now necessary infrastructure. We need them for telecommunications, for navigation, for earth observation. So scrap avoidance and scrap reduction is a big issue. And then there is the asteroid defense. I am often asked by politicians: Will this still happen during my term in office? I couldn't say yes - and that makes it less of a priority - but I think it is very important that we prepare ourselves.
Can the many private players who have been pushing into space travel in recent years help? Or are they more of a problem because of their commercial interests?
My hope is that we will get growth there, also in Europe, and that we will therefore be able to concentrate the funds we receive from taxpayers more on areas that we cannot currently support so strongly because we cover everything. I think that exploration and science, but also space security, will continue to be supported more by public funds in the future. Other areas such as earth observation could be implemented by commercial actors. But we have to be careful that we structure traffic in space. The keyword is space traffic management. As ESA, we can only provide technical advice. However, it is up to the EU and other global players to introduce regulations here. It starts at the start. My idea is that a satellite should only be launched if the operator has a system on board that removes the satellite from orbit after it has reached its service life or in the event of a malfunction. Or he has to prove a contract with a provider who will bring down his satellite. And if he doesn't have that, then he just has to leave a deposit with an organization that does just that.
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