Two questions to Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director of Earth Observation Programmes

27 November 2020

Today, the Director of Earth Observation Programmes of the European Space Agency (ESA), Josef Aschbacher, answered two questions during his visit to Leonardo's plant in Campi Bisenzio (Florence). The visit was an opportunity to get a closer look at the company's work on a series of high-tech electro-optical instruments such as SLSTR, 3MI, and LI intended for future planetary observation missions.

Director Aschbacher was welcomed by Luigi Pasquali, Coordinator of Leonardo's space activities and Marco De Fazio, Leonardo Deputy Managing Director Electronics Division, Electronics ITA Business Unit. Giorgio Saccoccia, President of the Italian Space Agency, was also present.

Today also marks the “European Researchers' Night”. As the Director mentioned in his answers, research plays a critical role in the development of highly scientific and innovative instruments for space.

 

What are the new technological challenges in Earth observation? 

To date, we have established a system whereby we provide satellite data daily to a wide range of users around the world. This was only possible because we have mastered – together with Leonardo – some of the key challenges of the past, as we could see for example with Aeolus. This was probably one of the most complex tools we have ever built together and it took years to solve all the problems related to the technology being developed. But we did it, and today we have a fantastic mission to measure wind farms on a global scale.

Going forward, I see several new challenges to address – most of our upcoming Earth Explorer satellites won't be easy to make. Let's think for example of the FLEX instrument (Fluorescence Explorer), whose development is led by Leonardo.

We will measure a faint fluorescence glow of plants from 800km up, which will allow us to get a better picture of the vegetation’s health. It will also help us understand the total amount of carbon absorbed by plants through photosynthesis. This is a key parameter to understand the carbon cycle. Measuring this faint glow, far inferior to a reflected sunlight signal, is primarily a technical challenge; it requires optical spectrometers with spectral and scattered light performances never achieved before.

But FLEX will not be the only challenge. Every single mission or satellite tool is challenging for our team, and together we are trying to develop a series of new missions and push the boundaries of technology forward.

All these missions will use very complex next-generation sensors that look at thermal infrared, microwave radiation or radar technology. This will not only offer us a better understanding of the Earth, but will also spur technological development.

I am looking forward to addressing these challenging technology goals together with the industry.

 

In your opinion, how important is the synergy between research and industry for the development of future capabilities? 

There are two aspects in which there is a strong link between science and industry.

On the one hand, we need scientists to identify our lack of knowledge to understand what is happening on Earth, so that we can build satellites that answer these pressing questions. This is the engine of the development of the industry.

But there is also a need for scientific and technological objectives, which give us, for example, new measurement principles or new ways of processing data to extract relevant information.

Therefore, the link between science and industry has to be very strong – to bring these technologies forward, but also to enable the development of new ones. And we need industry support to develop new services and create a strong bond with users, as well as facilitate the use of our satellite data.

Looking at Copernicus, for example, its success is based on past scientific developments in space technology and in collaboration with the industry. Our satellite missions experience of the past 20 years allows us to be what we are today. Development, science and technology led us to establish a programme that gives us a better picture of what is happening on our planet. We will continue to further develop it only by taking full advantage of the possibilities offered by science and technology. Looking at the upcoming European satellite missions – such as the Earth Explorers, the Copernicus Sentinels or the future meteorology missions – several challenges arise that will require substantial knowledge and expertise, but also an efficient cooperation between all the parties involved in the industry, in science and in ESA.

 

In the photo (from left to right): Giorgio Saccoccia, Massimo Piva (Head of Optronics & Space Equipment LoB - Leonardo), Josef Aschbacher, Marco de Fazio

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