Swiss do business out of this world

The structure for the propulsion module of the unmanned European Space Transporter ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle)

Switzerland's delegation to the European Space Agency (Esa) has helped outline priorities for future space missions, and Swiss industry stands to benefit.

This content was published on December 1, 2008 - 10:04

Mauro Dell'Ambrogio, who leads the delegation, told swissinfo Switzerland's precision-parts and high-tech industries will continue to play a critical role in space flight.

Ministers from Esa's 18 member states and representatives from the European Union gather every three years in The Hague to discuss the future of the agency's space programme. The latest meeting took place at the end of November.

Reporting back, Dell'Ambrogio - the secretary of state for education and research - stressed that Swiss industry is particularly interested in working with Esa to develop new weather satellites and relay systems as well as perfecting the Ariane 5 rocket, Esa's main workhorse.

"We got what we wanted," Dell'Ambrogio told swissinfo. "We're not guests at these meetings. Swiss industry plays a leading role."

Switzerland does not have its own space agency but is a founding member of Esa, which pools money and resources to launch European interests into space. The Swiss contribute about SFr150 million ($123 million) a year to be members.

Still the best

Esa currently has about 17 missions – from experiments in zero gravity to satellites – that are in progress at the moment. Every time an Ariane 5 rocket blasts off, more than 20 Swiss companies have contributed in some way to the flight.

During the next three years Esa's priorities will focus on missions like robotic exploration on Mars, advanced research on telecommunications systems and building an independent satellite network for navigation and weather forecasting, many of which will use that rocket.

Those activities could produce lucrative contracts for Swiss companies that make mission-critical hardware better than any other company worldwide, Dell'Ambrogio said.

"We're still the best at making atomic clocks," he said. "Even the Americans use our capsules for deploying satellites because they're so reliable and have been for a long time now."

"We can't be good in everything, so we try to be the best in very specific areas," added Peter Erni, a scientific adviser for the Swiss delegation. "We focus on doing a few things better than anyone."

Laser communication

Of particular interest to the Swiss is Esa's plan to develop a new data relay system that allows satellites to communicate in real time with earth-based observers.

As a satellite zips around the planet, Swiss scientists often only have a two- or three-minute window to download real-time information that a satellite gathers before the orb disappears behind the curve of the earth, making communication problematic.

Scientists get around the difficulties by having satellites communicate via radio waves with points scattered across the globe or with other satellites that can then feed the information back to where it is needed. Either way, the information is often delayed, perhaps by 15 minutes or so.

Swiss companies, like Oerlikon Space in Zurich, have spent the past decade developing lasers that can transmit far more information than radio waves. The light beam can be controlled with such precision that Oerlikon says it can track a fly from a kilometre away.

Were it to be used in conjunction with a satellite network, it could feed real time information back to observers on the ground no matter the satellite's position.

That has huge implications for the public, Dell'Ambrogio said, since satellites with such communication capabilities could give up-to-the-second traffic reports, aid in search and rescues and help meteorologists better understand climate changes and weather patterns.

Whatever technology companies develop for space programmes often holds commercial appeal for uses on earth, too.

"Putting money in space is not putting it in a black hole," Erni said. "It paves the way for future technologies that often end up back in our own pockets."

swissinfo, Tim Neville

Priorities in Space

Esa's priorities for the next three years dovetail nicely with Swiss industry strengths, meaning companies in Switzerland could potentially land lucrative contracts contributing to those missions.

For instance, as Esa continues to work on a new generation of satellites for better weather forecasting and earth observations, the agency will need components that allow a satellite's solar panels to spin 360 degrees to collect energy from the sun. Swiss companies make slip rings that allow the delicate arms to rotate freely while conducting electricity back to the heart of the satellite.

Esa delegates also agreed to work on improving the Ariane 5 rocket's efficiency and performance to make it an independent vehicle for carrying European interests into space. That bodes well for Switzerland since a Swiss industrial consortium provides each launch with high-performance computing hardware, payload fairings and other parts that often must be manufactured so precisely that an error of one-thousandth of a millimetre can doom a mission.

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Space junk

The Ariane 5 E rocket, launched from a European flight centre in South America, is the only vehicle that can carry several satellites 36,000 kilometres above the earth's surface into a geostationary orbit. A satellite in orbit at that distance will remain over the same spot on earth at all times, which allows for constant communication from that spot.

That's too far away, however, for a satellite to produce detailed photographs of landslides, traffic patterns and other earth-based events. Instead, satellites built for those purposes must orbit at about 400 kilometres above Earth.

Both of those distances are popular with space agencies around the globe and collisions with debris or other satellites have occurred before and can destroy millions of dollars of equipment. For that reason the Swiss want to be involved in a new project that would relay real-time information on the position of almost everything in orbit at any given moment.

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