Roger-Maurice Bonnet, Executive Director, International Space Science Institute

by





Roger-Maurice Bonnet is ending his second and final four-year term as president of the Committee on Space Research (Cospar) on a high note. The 38th Cospar Assembly, held in July in Bremen, Germany, broke attendance records set in 2004 in Paris, attracting some 3,800 space scientists from around the world. Especially notable was the substantial Chinese and Indian presence, with the two nations just behind the United States in terms of submitted papers.

For Bonnet, a former director of science at the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA), just as satisfying was the larger number of young scientists presenting results.

Bonnet, who is executive director of the International Space Science Institute of Bern, Switzerland, discussed the changing nature of space science with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding during the Bremen conference.

 

Did you find the transition from director of science at ESA to president of Cospar an easy one?

It’s certainly a challenge going from directing the ESA science program to something like this with a budget that is 1,000th the size of ESA’s. The money issues are a constant concern, of course. You have to depend on your power of persuasion. Your ability to get things done is based entirely on whether you can get the trust and confidence of the scientists.

 

Does the Cospar membership look like that of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF)?

Not really. The IAF has a strong attraction for engineers and is there to support industry. We have a few companies as members too, but not as many engineers. In the 1960s we had a mix of engineers and physicists, but to some degree they have been replaced by high-level scientists, astronomers and data analysts. We have really boosted the membership of scientists in recent years at the expense of experiment designers. That trend should perhaps be reversed.

 

Has Cospar been able to maintain a good age distribution?

Cospar went through a phase where its membership was aging, as have other organizations of this type. But I take great pleasure in the fact that we have been able to attract many young people. Look around at this conference and you see that. We have created a special award for young scientists, given special recognition to their papers and taken other steps to encourage young people to become active in the organization.

 

How do you explain the success of the meeting?

One reason is the quality of the data we are getting from missions launched in the 1980s and 1990s. Hubble, ISO [Infrared Solar Observatory], XMM [X-ray Multi-mirror Mission-Newton], Chandra, Spitzer, Cassini-Huygens, Galileo, SOHO [Solar and Heliospheric Observatory] and Ulysses, among others — they are delivering data of very high quality. It has changed the way the discipline attracts people. In the 1960s and 1970s, the era of the pioneers, your success was at least partly a technical success. Now you work as part of large teams, almost like CERN [the European high-energy physics center] when you are building a particle accelerator. The center of gravity is shifting toward scientific results.

 

Is that a bad thing?

No, but we need both types of people, those who build projects and those whose career is based on analyzing project data. When I was preparing my Ph.D. I was able to launch and relaunch experiments four times on the Veronique rocket in less than four years.

In a project today like Herschel, you start in the mid-1980s and you launch in 2009. Missions have become like cathedrals; they embrace generations of scientists. Look at Rosetta, Europe’s comet-chaser satellite started in the early 1990s, launched in 2004. The scientific results won’t be available until 2014. People who designed Rosetta will be retired or dead by then.

 

And what is the effect of these long development times on young scientists?

The problem is that you need to publish regularly, and those who design instruments can barely publish perhaps once a year at most. But you need much more than that to get the promotions. What we are trying to do is to give new value to the specificity of instruments for space missions. CERN has the same problems.

 

Would you agree that the space science challenges today, even if the missions are longer, are as interesting as those of a generation ago?

Of course. Dark matter, dark energy, discovering possibly habitable planets — these are enormous challenges. Black holes — remember when black holes were things people didn’t consider much? Now they seem to be everywhere. Look at a relatively small satellite like Corot, which has already discovered around 20 exo-planets, and some of them very interesting. Kepler is more powerful and will discover more. Even more powerful missions are coming in the future, and we’ll discover thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of these planets.

 

Do the size and cost of some of the new missions argue in favor of more international collaboration?

I hope so. Look at what happened to NASA’s Constellation X and ESA’s Xeus. There were various jealousies between the two approaches and the result is that Constellation X has been put in a drawer while Xeus has been abandoned.

IXO, the International X-ray Observatory, is not yet approved, but this is a good first step in the direction we should go. I think nations realize that they cannot get there alone for some of these missions. The James Webb Space Telescope is a good example of what can be done. The Lisa mission, too, if it is launched.

 

Do you see India and China moving into the mix of international collaboration alongside the United States, Europe and Japan?

These are the two nations with the most promising ambitions. India was focused on telecommunications, Earth observation and tele-education and is now moving into space science. You saw China moving into international collaboration with Double Star, a collaboration with Europe. Believe me, this is just the first step. India and China were both just behind the United States in the number of papers submitted at this year’s Cospar meeting.

 

Is China ready to engage the international community in space science?

The indications are positive. It took a long time for them, internally, to negotiate the Double Star agreement. But once it was agreed China was very quick in developing the satellites. It was done within two years. Did you know they have a space development plan that runs to 2050? There is a chapter on space science and they are keen on collaborating with Europe. They also are participating in the Phobos-Grunt mission of Russia, with a small satellite to be dropped off on Phobos.

 

The United States still has difficulties cooperating with China on space missions.

I know, but remember what happened in the 1970s when the U.S. refused to launch Europe’s telecommunications satellites. Europe’s response was to develop the Ariane launch vehicle. Now China would like to be a partner in the international space station. If this is not accepted, they talk about developing their own space station.

China is talking about a satellite mission over the poles of the sun. There are a lot of very interesting things one can do with such a mission and they appear open to cooperation. This would be a great project that could have Japanese, U.S. and European involvement. I hope we can seize this opportunity if we are serious about international cooperation. Of course, in the U.S., the problem of ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which limit technology collaboration] needs to be solved.

 

There was a debate at the Cospar congress here about public-private partnerships in Earth observation. Some say data should be free, others say the private sector should be encouraged to make a business out of selling data. What is your view?

Part of it is a problem of semantics. If you are looking out for forest fires, this might be a commercial service, whereas looking at ocean temperatures is science. Data that relate to understanding the Earth system should be available to researchers free of charge. We saw with Europe’s ERS and Envisat satellites that a policy of trying to commercialize the data didn’t work out. The policy has been changed recently. This is excellent news.

Scientists have no problem with commercializing data for services but not for science. Spot Image of France was clever enough to give scientists some of its satellite data free of charge while operating a commercial service. So it is possible to combine both.