paris — The new president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) said this month’s planned launch of an Italian astronomy satellite aboard an Indian rocket and a scheduled June flight of a civil-military radar observation spacecraft on a Boeing Delta vehicle should serve to highlight Italy’s determination to develop a strong national space program in addition to its role inside the 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA).
Giovanni Bignami’s appointment follows a six-month vacancy at the post following the departure of Sergio Vetrella. Italy’s ESA partners and industry officials said the vacancy had created a backlog of decisions that piled up on what is now Bignami’s desk.
In an April 18 interview, Bignami agreed that Europe’s third-biggest space power after France and Germany needs to be given a clear direction. He has been given a four-year term to accomplish that.
“I want to make something serious of Italy’s space program,” Bignami said. “Let’s say it has been lacking a couple of things recently. What I am confident of is a stable budget and indications from the government that the budget will be increased.”
ASI’s budget is around 650 million euros ($879.7 million) for 2007, not including a special budget line coming from several Italian government ministries and devoted to the Galileo satellite-navigation project.
Unlike almost all ESA member governments except France, a majority of ASI spending is reserved for programs managed outside ESA. Bignami, a former ASI science director and former president of a European space-science advisory body, said this balance is here to stay.
“We think this is a happy medium. Half of our budget funds national efforts, which can then be used to prepare for the other half that’s spent inside ESA,” Bignami said.
Having invested in certain technologies on its own, Italy is in a better position to secure high-value-added roles in ESA efforts. It is a strategy that the bigger ESA member states commonly use for high-priority technologies.
The 360-kilogram Agile gamma-ray astronomy satellite, scheduled for launch April 23 aboard an Indian PSLV rocket, is an example of what ASI hopes to do in the coming years, Bignami said.
The satellite represents India’s first commercial contract for a main payload on one of its rockets. It is also the first Italian science satellite in a decade.
Bignami said a high priority of his is to assure that a small satellite such as Agile — for space science, Earth observation science, even telecommunications research — is funded to permit launches such as this every two years.
“Agile is costing us less than 60 million euros, including launch,” Bignami said. “With less than 10 percent of my budget devoted to small-satellite missions, I can afford to do this approximately every two years. ASI had this idea a few years ago, but it was killed. It’s high time to put it into practice.”
The first of Italy’s four high-resolution radar Cosmo-Skymed Earth observation satellites is scheduled for launch aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket in June, with a second scheduled for a Delta 2 launch later this year. The third Cosmo-Skymed, also signed for a Delta 2, will be launched in early 2008. The fourth and final spacecraft has not yet been assigned a launch vehicle.
The Italian Defense Ministry has paid for 15 percent of Cosmo-Skymed and will receive 15 percent of the imagery. Italy and France have agreed to join forces to create a combined radar-optical system, with the two French Pleiades optical satellites to be launched starting in 2010.
Italy has been able to leverage its Cosmo-Skymed work to provide a similar radar payload to South Korea, and Bignami said an accord with Canada on data exchange with Canada’s Radarsat-2 satellite is a priority. Radarsat-2 and Cosmo-Skymed use the same Prisma platform built by Thales Alenia Space. Canada and Italy are studying a hyperspectral Earth observation mission, called Hypseo, that also may use the Prisma platform.
ASI also has a cooperative agreement with Argentina’s space agency that likely will use Cosmo-Skymed heritage, Bignami said.