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It will be Europe that discovers if there was life on Mars – Interview with Lucio Scolamiero

It will be Europe that discovers if there was life on Mars – Interview with Lucio Scolamiero


The European Space Agency (ESA) took no part in the “space race” which culminated in the manned Moon landing during the Cold War. Yet, thanks also to substantial input from Italy, a founding member of the Agency and a major contributor to its activities, the ESA has played a key role in the development of the space industry and related technologies in Europe, as explained in the following interview by Lucio Scolamiero, Principal Mechanical System Engineer at ESTEC, the Agency’s “technical epicenter”, based in the Netherlands. Moreover, the ESA has for some time now had to its credit, as well as having in the works, missions of huge scientific and symbolic significance, such as ExoMars2020, which aims to explore the Martian subsurface for evidence of extinct life.

How would you describe ESTEC?

ESTEC – the European Space and Technology Center – is by far the largest of the ESA’s sites (of which there are eight, found in various European countries), with a team of around 2,000 people made up of staff and contractors. It is regarded as the ESA’s “technical epicenter” with good reason, since it is here that the vast majority of the Agency’s projects are conceived and then steered through various stages of development, in collaboration with Italian industry and international partners. The ESA’s main “test facilities” are located at ESTEC, where satellites weighing 8-10 tons are subjected to the extreme environmental conditions of launch, with vibro-acoustic stresses potentially lethal to human beings. In the “Large Solar Simulator”, satellites are additionally subjected to outer space conditions, including solar radiation, vacuum, and temperatures below -180°C. ESTEC also houses state-of-the-art labs for studying materials, life support for manned spaceflight, and mechanical, optical, and electronic components, together with a very advanced “Concurrent Design Engineering” facility.

What sort of work is ESTEC engaged in?

The missions ESTEC is working on are too numerous to mention in full. Of the many, it is worth citing “BepiColombo”, a planned mission to Mercury, which was named after the Italian astronomer from Padua, Giuseppe Colombo, a NASA gold medal winner whose calculations were the inspiration for fly-by maneuvers, which were pivotal for a number of NASA interplanetary missions during the 1960s and 1970s.


ESTEC also heads the development of the European satellite navigation system Galileo, comprising a fleet of 18 satellites already in orbit and 6 more set to be added soon to complete the constellation. Nor should we forget, as a final note, activities relating to space exploration (ExoMars), space robotics, Earth observation, and the International Space Station (ISS). One small point of interest is that the drinking water on board the ISS comes from Italy, Piedmont to be precise, although it is necessary to carry “tap” water, which is preferred by the Russian cosmonauts, in addition to the spring water, which is prized by the American astronauts.

With the US-USSR space race now a bygone era, what do you see as being Europe’s role in the space sector today?

The purpose of the ESA is “…to provide for and to promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European States in space research and technology and their space applications…”. The ESA therefore cannot be said to have taken part in the “space race”, which ultimately came to a close with the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, the Agency has, over the course of the last 50 years, played a key role in R&D activities, in the development of space technologies within Europe, and in guaranteeing independent access to space for European countries, thereby ensuring the competitiveness of the European space industry. This is also thanks to the French/European Guiana Space Center at Kourou in French Guiana, from where the European Ariane and VEGA as well as the Russian-built Soyuz vehicles are launched. The ESA has also played a very important catalytic role for the European space industry, which is mature and competitive at a global level (at times leading the field, as is the case with respect to “Earth observation” programs) and which employs more than 35,000 people. Worth recalling also is the ESA’s role and participation in the International Space Station, the foremost example of genuine borderless international cooperation between the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada, and Japan, as well as constituting a veritable off-world outpost of humanity.

While it is true that the ESA played no part in the saga of the space race, which culminated in the manned Moon landing, it is also the case that the ESA has for some time now had to its credit, as well as having in the works, missions of huge scientific value and of a symbolic significance comparable to that of the Apollo program. One need only recall the Rosetta mission, the first time that a space probe was placed on a comet, or the ExoMars2020 mission, which, in conjunction with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, aims to explore the Martian subsurface for evidence (biomarkers) of extinct life by drilling to a depth of 2 meters, where life could potentially have developed shielded from lethal cosmic rays. Indeed, the leadership of this very same ExoMars program has been entrusted to the Italian space industry.

Ultimately, the future of the ESA is laid out in the “Space 4.0” strategy, which envisages that space will no longer be the preserve of a limited group of advanced spacefaring nations, nor will it be composed of an assortment of space missions, but rather it will become a key element of a much broader canvas, which will encompass emerging private enterprise, the academic and research communities, citizens, the digital sector, and global interactions, with significant economic and social spin-offs.

What are the most pervasive everyday applications of space technologies?

It would of course be too easy to respond that the navigation systems used every day are by their nature satellite-based, that weather forecasts rely on satellite data, and that the future of the internet will very likely be satellite-powered (with the OneWeb constellation, a fleet of 648 satellites that will enable the provision of global internet services, currently in development). However, it is also worth mentioning that the need to reduce the mass (and volume) of satellite payloads has been a strong driver of the miniaturization of electronics, helping to make successive electronic, computing, and digital revolutions possible.


There have also been major spin-offs in the field of materials and fabrics with ultra-high thermal resistance and mechanical strength, solar panels, and cutting-edge telecommunications systems. Advanced technologies set to have a major impact on the future of everyday life (such as quantum computing, 3D printing, nanotechnologies, and so on) also show great promise for applications in space and, as such, are currently the subject of study and research.

Listing the industrial applications would be a lengthy process, but, to mention just a few, they include: the water purification system developed for astronauts, which is also usable for water filtration on Earth; space robotics, which need to be able to operate in “impossible” conditions and can also be utilized in other extreme environments (like oil wells, mining operations, nuclear power plants, and so on), without putting human lives at risk; and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) testing technologies, which can be used to reduce electromagnetic pollution from cellphone networks. Indeed, the ESA has a Technology Transfer Program Office and several Business Incubation Centers (one of which is located in Italy’s Lazio region), which, by offering the possibility of exploiting ideas originated in a space context, facilitate the creation of new commercial products and services.

Are there any positive spin-offs for Italian industry that stem from Italy being one of the ESA’s major contributors?

Italy is – and, one might say, has always been – at the vanguard of the aerospace sector, especially considering Luigi Broglio’s pioneering activities in the field of space and launchers at the Italian space center in Malindi, Kenya (now renamed the Luigi Broglio Space Center). But returning to the present, it is worth noting that Thales Alenia Space Italia was selected by the ESA as Prime Contractor for the GOCE mission, as well as playing key roles on the Sentinel-1 mission under the European Copernicus program, the Euclid mission that aims to shed light on the mystery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and on the previously cited ExoMars2020 mission.

Also worth mentioning is the new VEGA (Advanced Generation European Carrier Rocket) launch system, a program for a small European launcher developed and validated by the ESA for the launch of 300-1500kg VEGA-class satellites, which was built with Italian industry at the helm and as the leading contributor. To date, the launch vehicle has had a 100% success rate, with as many as 9 flawless launches. It should be noted that, given the major role that Italian industry has played in the building of VEGA, the ESA team that oversaw its development and which is working on its future advancement (VEGA-C, with a 2,200 kg payload capacity) is headquartered at the ESA’s ESRIN facility in Frascati (near Rome), known historically as the ESA Center for Earth Observation.

Lucio Scolamiero is Principal Mechanical System Engineer for the MetOp-SG (Meteorological Operational Satellite - Second Generation) program, developed by the ESA in cooperation with EUMETSAT. With more than thirty years’ experience in the space sector, first within the Italian industry and subsequently as a member of Senior Staff at the ESA, he is also the co-author of two international patents.