Profile: Nurturing a Space Exploration Strategy Out of the Limelight


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Profile: Nurturing a Space Exploration Strategy Out of the Limelight

Space News Staff Writer
posted: 08 November 2006
12:24 pm ET

Simonetta Di Pippo

Director, Space Science and Exploration, Italian Space Agency

Chair, Exploration Program Board, European Space Agency

I f the principal space powers are able to develop a coordinated effort to explore the Moon, Mars and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit in the next 10 years it will likely be due to negotiations already taking place far from the limelight.

The United States, Europe, Russia, China, India and Japan are among the participants in a series of meetings that, by late 2007, should result in an initial set of guidelines on how these governments can overcome their mutual mistrust and craft a common exploration strategy.

Even assembled inside the European Space Agency (ESA), European governments are by no means the biggest players in this group. But their ongoing cooperative exploration programs with the United States, Russia, India, China, Japan and others may give them a special ability to help find the common ground for a global effort.

Italian astrophysicist Simonetta Di Pippo would appear to be particularly well-suited to this task. Italy has a long record of cooperation with the United States and also is leading ESA’s exploration initiative. The Italian government recently signed a space-cooperation accord with China as well, and has started its own lunar-exploration program. Di Pippo spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

What is the status of Italy’s
lunar-exploration program?

We have a 10-year vision that starts in 2006. We selected 16 studies in September that include numerous mission topics and three science requirements — missions investigating the Moon, doing Earth observation from the Moon and studying the universe from the Moon. We expect to make a decision on which ones to start by mid-2007. The estimated budget for 10 years is 900 million euros ($1.1 billion). Our current budget commitment is for 55 million euros between 2006 and 2008.

The current thinking is to have an orbiter to better visualize the Moon. This is what our science community said they wanted. There is a strong interest in doing lunar science, and an increasing interest in using the Moon as a platform for observing the universe.

How would this fit in to a wider global exploration effort?

It is consistent with the notion of a system of systems, in which each nation would make contributions that are coordinated with the contributions of others. We also need to create technical and communications standards that can be accepted by all nations so that different missions can work with each other.

Italy also has been a leading contributor to Europe’s ExoMars lander mission. What is that program’s status?

It is now clear that this mission likely will slip from a 2011 launch to 2013. That changes things in terms of the upload capacity needed to perform the mission. For example, it means we are more likely to have to use an Ariane 5-type rocket rather than the Soyuz vehicle. It will permit us to add an orbiter mission and expand the rover’s payload complement — but it also adds to the cost of the mission and we will need a decision sometime in mid-2007 on this.

The goal now for ExoMars is to get an ESA decision on the mission, balancing technical difficulties and financial requirements. We are working hard to get an ESA decision in mid-2007. We cannot let this mission slip beyond 2013.

You are part of the group negotiating a global exploration strategy among 14 spacefaring nations including the United States, China, Russia, India, South Korea and Europe. There is a meeting planned for Dec. 7 in Houston. What do you expect from it?

At NASA’s request the global architecture is mainly devoted to the Moon for now, even though it is clear that for Europe and others, Mars is the ultimate goal. But this exploration architecture strategy will be a living document that adapts to Mars as well.

After the Houston meeting, we have a meeting scheduled in the spring in Japan, and then one scheduled later in the year in Italy — the third in a series of annual meetings in Spineto [Italy]. By that time, we should have a global exploration strategy document that we can present to the governments in Europe and Japan, and in preparation for the next ESA ministerial in 2008. We should also have a clearer idea of international coordination in this area in time for the Spineto meeting.

Given its limited budgets and commitment to using the international space station, is there much investment Europe can make in lunar exploration in the next few years?

The big rendezvous for Europe will be a ministerial council meeting in 2008. Exploration will have a big place on the agenda of that meeting. We need to prepare to bring specific proposals to this meeting and they must be prepared well in advance. One of the challenges we have is to persuade the larger member states of ESA to get active in these preparations. Up to now, not everyone has been moving at the same speed.

Europe is working with Russia on a future crew-transport system following the U.S. rejection of European participation in NASA’s crew exploration vehicle program. Does this create tensions?

The U.S. position has evolved in recent months, and now it is accepted that we cannot have a single-point failure in crew transport. This is part of a wider effort to look at [the international space station] and determine what we did well there, and what we have not done well, and to apply these lessons to an open global exploration architecture.

Italy on its own, and as part of a European effort, contributed to the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. Given the technology-transfer
restrictions now in place in the United States, could this kind of cooperation occur today?

I would say yes, but it would be more difficult. Cooperation is more difficult now but it continues. We are taking part in the Dawn and Glast [Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope] missions with NASA to be launched in 2007 . Both are examples of what can be done despite the obstacles. It’s also due to the long experience in space collaboration between Italy and the United States.

There are questions about the level of involvement of India and China in the global exploration effort. How do you see it?

India has been participating in these meetings. To date they have not taken a very proactive role but they are there. China has sent its local diplomatic representatives to these meetings, and Chinese officials are still debating how heavily to be involved. My own feeling is that the Chinese, after an internal debate, will jump into this effort in a big way in a few years. I have been to China several times in recent months and I can tell you that the level of activity in space exploration there is absolutely incredible.