SIUOxford: Inaugural Space Panel- Part 3- European Space Agency

Author: Miguel A Ramirez Hernandez Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones, Emil Fristed

The pursuit of space is both the destination and the journey; a journey of technology development and innovation that will attract creative minds, spark new ideas, and build new skills - while benefiting all aspects of society.

On 6th of March 2019, the SIU team, in collaboration with the Oxford University Aeronautical Society, co-hosted The Inaugural Space Panel. This was the biggest event in SIU’s history. In a virtually full auditorium, we had the opportunity to learn from three inspirational and highly influential individuals involved in the space industry. Each speaker addressed how space has inspired people to choose a career in science, and how this industry has enabled aerospace specific technologies to be adapted into real world solutions.

Part 3

Jan Wörner and the European Space Agency

To conclude the event, we had the honour of hearing from Johann-Dietrich “Jan” Wörner. He is the current Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA) . Previously, he served as head of the German delegation to ESA from 2007 to 2015 and served as Chairman of the ESA Council from 2012 to 2014. He also worked as Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and as a professor of Civil Engineering, Dean of the Faculty and President at TU Darmstadt.

Jan Wörner spoke to our audience about the mission and activities taking place at the European Space Agency. The ESA is “Europe's gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe's space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world”. With the support of the general public, institutions like the ESA can operate effectively. Accordingly, it is very important for the agency to maintain high interest amongst citizens.

A large range of current projects and activities can be explored on the ESA website .

Why work on space

The three main motivators for space research, according to Jan Wörner, are money, fear, and curiosity. Historically, these three distinct and independent reasons have driven the development of space technology.

Currently, we are facing a number of global challenges that are becoming strong fear-based motivators for the study of space and production of space technologies. Such challenges include climate change, migration, mobility, communication, energy, shortage of resources, demographic development, healthcare, catastrophes, and conflict. Any of these challenges would justify the exploration and development of new space technologies. Despite this, Jan believed that the most important motivator in humans is still curiosity.

Additionally, Jan mentioned that we are now in a Space 4.0 era. No longer are a select few governments involved in space-related activitites; there are new players, including around 70 different countries, several universities, research institutes, and private entities. Digitalization is also a facilitator for this new space era. innovations no longer involve just sending people to the moon, but instead they connect space with all other technologies.

In the information age, satellite telecommunication, cloud services, and global positioning devices-to name a few- depend on space research. Moreover, spin-off technologies, i.e. technologies that are developed for space activities but used in other fields, have generated significant interest. For example, smoke detectors that were developed in response to the Apollo I fire incident are now ubiquitous in homes and buildings around the world. Equally, spin-in technologies, those developed for applications on Earth, are being adapted for use in space, e.g. portable DNA sequencers. The management of many of these activities is done by ESA. The agency’s tasks include coordinating with private and public sectors, acting as a partner, broker, mediator, and enabler.

One the most recent projects in ESA is Aeolus- “Aeolus is the first satellite mission to acquire profiles of Earth’s wind on a global scale”. Accordingly, Aeolus will facilitate weather and climate studies, with invaluable global benefits.

Another project, NEOSAT , is a partnership between ESA and industry. It focuses on developing and demonstrating in orbit a new generation of satellites with higher operational efficiency, lower costs and higher functionality, amongst other benefits.

Functional Structure of ESA

To effectively act as the main entity of space related activities in the European Union, ESA focuses on four main task pillars:

  • Science and exploration: The fundamental study of the universe, including exploration activities.

  • Safety and security: Development of technologies to prevent and alleviate disasters.

  • ·Applications: Facilitation of global observation and telecommunication.

  • Enabling and Support: Provision of transportation, technology and operations; including rocket launch services

An overarching goal at ESA is to operate in the wide spectrum of innovation. Starting from fundamental research, technology development, and moving towards marketable applications, ESA positions itself as the enabler in a “Seamless Chain of Innovation”. Specific ESA programs are designed to operate at each stage of the chain, with both public and private investments.

Jan emphasized the value of fundamental research. He recalled Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and how multiple decades passed before the theory had practical utility. Now, all global positioning devices depend on this theory to function accurately. Thus, we must continue studying fundamental phenomena without immediate proof of usefulness.

In addition, he stressed the support and benefits that space research gets from other fields. Fields such as medicine and entertainment have provided significant contributions to space technology. Moreover, advanced computational tools including big data and artificial intelligence will be extensively used for analysis of space information. Tasks such as predicting weather, monitoring global warming and sea levels, detecting forest fires or even identifying missing ships will require the comprehensive analysis of copious amounts of data.

To end his presentation, Jan gave a message of unity- “Europe from space is borderless”. The space program in the European Union is a success story. We should strive to continue with this level of collaboration in space, as well as all other aspects of society.

At the end of the event, the three speakers joined the audience in a networking session over cheese and wine.

*Special thanks to the Department of Physics for their tremendous support in providing a free venue for this event.


Find a video recording of the full event here.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

We also launched the first issue of the SIU Magazine at this event. Find out more here.