Key target is Mars in robotic exploration of space

30 Sep 2010

The director of the European Space Agency’s Science and Robotic Exploration Programme says in the field of robotics exploration, the key target is Mars.

Prof David Southwood told Siliconrepublic: “Our key technological target is to develop capabilities for the exploration of Mars and enable our robots to navigate and move autonomously. These are the kind of things driving my programme on robotic exploration.

“For myself intellectually, the fascinating thing is how it limits human involvement. We have to give the robots more autonomy but however smart you make the robot you find out how to interface with the human side of things is still a challenge because communications could take hours or minutes from space.

“Space is bringing that challenge to the front. We have to test, test and test again and reduce all the nasty things that happen to equipment because it’s not like we can currently send anyone out to fix it.”

Southwood was in Dublin yesterday to give a public lecture entitled ‘Space Science in Europe, What’s ahead?’

He said that the exploration of Mars will be jointly between Europe and the US.

The next big launch for the ESA will be the launch of the Gaia Space Mission in 2013. “That’s going to be all about exploration of our galaxy, looking at all the stars in our galaxy and trying to find that.

“We are also working on launching the James Webb space telescope with NASA.”

The Herschel Space Observatory, he explained, is currently endeavouring to understand the formation of galaxies and stars and the creation of planets.

“We’re doing better than America. Gaia is a fine example – the capabilities we have there are not currently available in the US. We can follow at any one time 20,000 stars with a single telescope and track them.”

Ireland and space development

I asked Southwood about the contribution Ireland makes to space development. “Ireland certainly makes a contribution and quite a few people working at ESA are Irish and sure there’s the industrial return. Ireland has a vibrant electronics industry and in my book are the best for flight software, you trust the Irish to do that, they are world experts.”

But how does Ireland strategically target what it wants to do for the space industry? “The key is to find niche things to concentrate on and you become supplier of that.

“For a country like Ireland, environment very important – there is good work being done on understanding soil and land coverage from space, telecoms is important, particularly in remoter parts of country where you can’t get land based network space can provide high bit rate services.

“Depending on what you want Ireland to be and how to exploit it, space is just a capability. But space is also where inspiration is important. It really requires a coherent view from Ireland on how it plays the space game,” Southwood said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years