Switzerland in Space and Aerospace
Apollo 11 is probably the most famous space mission of all time. The first experiment carried out by the Apollo astronauts was the deployment of metallic foils, “solar sails.” This ingenious experiment was imagined by Professor Johannes Geiss, Director of the Physics Institute of the University of Bern at the time, and his Swiss team. Ever since, Swiss scientists, researchers and astronaut Claude Nicollier have been at the forefront of the space industry.
Claude Nicollier, former NASA and Hubble astronaut, is Switzerland’s Space Ambassador. He is this year’s Tell Award recipient and is being honored for demonstrating exceptional and outstanding support for Swiss-American relations beyond his space missions. Click here for a transcript of Ambassador Martin Dahinden’s remarks.
For the past 40 years, Switzerland has been active in space. A founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA), the country has also participated in a number of world-renowned, groundbreaking projects. Read the success story of Switzerland’s participation in space exploration from NASA’s Apollo missions to today’s Swiss satellite CHEOPS, which is capable of characterizing exoplanets.
What is the Tell Award?
The Tell Award is presented by the Embassy of Switzerland to a personality demonstrating exceptional and outstanding support for Swiss-American relations. The name comes from Wilhelm Tell, a mythical figure in Swiss history associated with the “oath of mutual support” sworn at the origin of the Swiss Confederation in 1291.
Swiss “Solar Sails” on Apollo Missions (1969–1972)
Apollo 11 is probably the most famous space mission of all time. Announced by President John F. Kennedy, the goal of NASA’s Apollo program was to land a man on the moon within a decade of the announcement.
The first scientific experiment ever conducted by a manned mission to the moon originated in Switzerland.
The first two astronauts on board Apollo 11 set foot on the moon in 1969. The first experiment carried out by all Apollo astronomers on the moon was the deployment of metallic foils, “solar sails.” This ingenious experiment was imagined by Professor Johannes Geiss, Director of the Physics Institute of Bern at the time, and his Swiss team. To this day, these measurements are still the best measurement tools for understanding the composition of the wind.
RUAG Launcher Fairings (1974–Today)
The European Arianespace rocket, Ariane 5, is currently the most successful and used rocket for launching commercial satellites in the world along with the Atlas V-500 rockets constructed in a joint venture between the American companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The fairings of these rockets, which actually hold and protect the payload during launch, have been constructed by the Swiss company RUAG Space since 1974. The combination of materials used to build these launchers, such as aluminum cores and carbon fiber face sheets, allows a perfect balance between low mass and high stiffness. All RUAG payloads have unrivaled 100% mission success.
Swiss Astronaut Aboard Hubble (1993 & 1999)
In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was carried into space by an American space shuttle. Hubble is one of the largest telescopes in space and has provided an absolutely unique set of scientific images and measurements over the years. From the beginning, Hubble was supposed to be serviced by astronomers. That allowed a servicing mission in 1993 to correct a mirror defect that otherwise would have severely impaired the telescope’s performance. One of the crew members who repaired the HST was Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier. In 1999, Claude Nicollier was again part of an HST servicing mission during which he performed an 8-hour spacewalk exchanging key elements of the HST. To this day, Claude Nicollier remains the only Swiss astronaut and Switzerland’s Space Ambassador.
Swiss Scientific Instruments Aboard Rosetta (2004–Today)
ESA’s spacecraft Rosetta started her mission in 2004 with the goal of obtaining further insights into the formation of the solar system and the origin of water on earth. Part of this spacecraft’s payload is the largest suite of Swiss scientific instruments (two mass spectrometers and a pressure sensor) sent to space so far. The original lead researcher for these high-profile tools was Professor H. Balsiger from the University of Bern, who has since retired and passed the baton to Professor K. Altwegg and her team. In August of this year, 10 years after her launch, Rosetta will meet her target, a comet, and will begin collecting data for research.
Swiss Atomic Clocks for Galileo (2008–Today)
Galileo, a $6.8 billion European Union and ESA project is the European version of the American GPS, the Chinese Compass and the RussianGlonass system. Galileo’s first two operational satellites were launched in October 2011 and two more followed in 2012. After a successful test in 2013, the Galileo system of a total of 30 satellites is now being deployed over the next several years. Galileo will be the first complete civilian global positioning system in operation. Key in all positioning systems is the ultra-precise measurement of time. Atomic clocks, particularly rubidium clocks, are used for this because they are stable, have low weight, and are reliable. The stability of such clocks is so good that it would lose only three seconds in one million years! Not surprisingly, Swiss industry, with its long tradition of precise timekeeping, has developed key expertise in this area. This has made Orolia and its subsidiary Spectratime the world-leading suppliers of atomic clocks, including 72 for the Galileo system alone!
Swiss Satellite CHEOPS (2014–2021)
In 2013, CHEOPS (CHaracterizing ExOPlanets Satellite) was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) as the winner of a competition for a new class of small missions (S-missions) within the Agency’s science program. Adopted by ESA in 2014, the mission is now in the implementation phase for a launch at the end of 2017. It is the first scientific satellite for which Switzerland has assumed a leading role at mission level and therefore CHEOPS represents a unique opportunity for the country to demonstrate its space capabilities.
The mission, led by Professor Willy Benz, Director of the Physics Institute, Space and Planetary Sciences, in Bern and Director of the Center for Space and Habitability in Bern, will be the first mission dedicated to searching for transits by performing ultrahigh precision photometry on bright stars already known to host planets. CHEOPS will be able to accurately measure the radii of transiting exoplanets. With additional information on theirmass, CHEOPS will then enable scientists to determine the composition of each of those exoplanets (rocky or gaseous). Knowing where to look and when to observe makes CHEOPS the most efficient transit search satellite. The CHEOPS mission is planned for a nominal lifetime of 3.5 years.
These few examples demonstrate Switzerland’s well-established competitive position in space science, technology, and innovation. While successfully primarily working within the framework of ESA, Switzerland also collaborates with space agencies all over the world. Space research and technology allow us to understand the world we live in and to make it better and safer for all.
What’s New? Find Out More about Some Current Swiss Space Projects
University of Bern
The Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) at the University of Bern focuses on the “characterization of exoplanets and the exploration of the solar system.”
The University of Bern is strongly involved in the CHEOPS mission, a joint project between Switzerland and the European Space Agency. The objective of CHEOPS, which stands for “Characterizing ExOPlanet Satellite,” is characterizing exoplanets in Earth’s environment. For that purpose, the satellite will observe roughly 500 stars and their planetary systems.
The National Centre of Competence in Research NCCR PlanetS was founded by Switzerland’s National Science Foundation in 2014. It is an interdisciplinary research program “dedicated to the study of the origin, evolution, and characterization of planets.” The University of Bern is the leading institution in this collaborative project.
NCCR PlanetS online
ETH Zürich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich)
InSight Mission to Mars is a mission of the NASA Discovery Program. It aims to send a lander to Mars to study the planet’s deep interior. The Swiss Seismological Service (Schweizer Erdbebendienst, SED) and the Seismology and Geodynamics (SEG) group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich) are collaborating to create a “catalogue of seismic events” that will be recorded by the seismometers on board InSight. The mission is expected to land on Mars in September 2016.
Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (ZHDK)
In collaboration with the “BirdLife-Naturzentrum Neeracherried,” the Institute of Design Research at ZHDK has developed a bird-flight simulator named Birdly. With the help of 3D goggles, the simulator creates a unique virtual experience: it makes people fly over a landscape, seeing it from the bird’s perspective.
EPFL Lausanne (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne)
The Space Engineering Center (eSpace) and the Swiss Space Center are two centers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) that promote space research. The former focuses on space-related research & development and the latter tries to establish a network and dialogue between Swiss industry and institutions.
The SwissCube project was launched by the Swiss Space Center back in 2005. The satellite is a small cube: its sides measure 4 inches and it weighs about 2 lbs.
CleanSpace One (CSO) is a mission undertaken by EPFL together with Swiss Space Systems (S3). Clean Space One is a satellite built for “orbital cleanup.” It removes debris in orbit around the Earth. CSO is the flagship project of eSpace.