Astrophysics and the European Space Agency

Frank Salzgeber, Head of Innovation and Ventures Office at ESA, explains how technology is allowing us to see further.

As Head of Innovation and Ventures Office, Frank Salzgeber is overseeing the largest Space entrepreneurship network in the world. His team has initiated over 320 industry transfers and supported over 720 start-ups. The team support the exploitation of the ESA patent portfolio and promote the ESA Business Application offer of ESA. Over 500 business have been supported and SME and industry to applied Space solutions for their business. Innovation News Network speaks to Salzgeber about ESA’s approach to astrophysics, and the importance behind this.

Can we begin with you giving us a brief insight into your role within ESA?

My background is in industrial engineering; I used to work for Apple and later in my own IT start up. In 2003, ESA hired me as the Head of commercial development of human spaceflight and exploration. This involved working with astronauts and bringing the science and the commercial world together. After three years, the management moved me to another position which was as the Head of technology transfer and business incubation. What we do is bringing all the elements of research technology development, together with the non-space world. Sometimes the space world and the non-space world are in two different orbits and our job is to bring them together. I think a lot of scientific researchers have a similar approach, or at least they try to do that. On the one side you have to speak with the market and users, which is out there, and on the other side we see what we have to do – you have to bridge that. It’s not only good enough to make this dialogue and bring it together, sometimes you have to prove that it’s working; this is where we chip in on money. We support around 200 start-ups per year; 15% of these are in the UK with our partner STFC (the Science and Technology Facilities Council) and UK Space, and we support around 150 cases where industry applies the technology, services and/or applications which we have developed in space.

What are some of the latest research studies (and findings) being conducted at ESA? What would you say is one of the main research focus areas at the moment?

To be honest, the smallest part of ESA is the science part. The science part is really where they explore the universe, where stars are growing and dying etc. This is a small but important part of ESA where a fraction of the budget goes to. I think the exciting part is that we have to build our machineries in order to do the actual exploration. Take the Hubble telescope for example, this is an instrument that you have to build and you build them on the edge of possibility in terms of technology.

The other big part that ESA are doing which may be different to other space agencies, we help industry to develop the backbone of our digital society. There are three big pillars: communication (such as satellites and 5G technologies), navigation (for instance GPS from America, and Galileo from Europe), and Earth observation. In terms of the second pillar, navigation, this is crucial because we have a generation which never gets lost besides when their phone battery runs out. You use it in your car, but you use also the time signal really managing the electrical grid. This is crucial for Europe, because you want to have a secure system and not a system which is may be manipulated by one country.

The third, started in research. This has moved really to a commercial activity, because in the past Earth observation was really rather either for military use, or it was for monitoring the Earth in terms of climate and weather. However, this has turned out to be more and more commercial. I would say that these are the three technology areas which are the backbone of our digital society future.

Can you tell us about ESAs approach to astrophysics? What are some of the latest projects you are working on in accordance with this?

What the technology allows at the moment is that you can see further; you see a bigger building full of telescopes in space by our colleagues of the Directorate of Science. This is not only done by us but also with our sister organisation: the European Southern Observatory if we are looking on the ground Telescopes. We have a series of satellites and missions which are planned in the next years. There was one crazy thing which did not work, but this was one of my favourite ones, it was the idea of a start-up to create a public telescope internet orbit to allow everybody to buy airtime. What we have to see is that Space is not really governmental anymore. It has really become a normal industry, and I think this is the biggest trend.

We have also one start-up company in Germany, who was writing a software which we supported in giving airtime for public telescopes in the southern hemisphere, because you have a lot of universities which have a telescope but they have a funding problem, so they sell airtime through their telescope to private researchers or hobby researchers of the North. I really like this; with digitalisation, you can really start not a shared economy, but a shared research society.

I think that this will be empowered because it’s the same when we are looking at maps. There is one start-up company in the Netherlands that are detecting special structures on Earth but also on Mars. It can be used as a gate to get people looking at it because sometime artificial intelligence (AI) does not pick up everything.” However, if a human makes a point that that is a crater/object which looks strange, that still works better than any computer. It’s really a shared research and sharing the results and bringing it back to the crowds; and that is a very nice way to do it.

In addition to this then, what are some of the latest trends in astrophysics research, and what would you say are some of the main limitations that come alongside this and how can these be overcome?

When we talk about limitations of computers, a lot of people say AI will solving everything – I think that’s misleading. I always describe it as like when we were in the school and you were allowed to use a calculator. Everybody thought it would become easy, but actually it was becoming harder. I think this is what AI algorithms will do; a good doctor will become a better doctor, a bad doctor will not become a good doctor because of AI. Therefore, it will empower us but in a certain area, humans will be always be better. The joint working with algorithms and computers will allow us things better and brighter, and we will be able to see further in terms of what the impact is. I think that when you take a step back you will see the bigger picture, and sometimes you have to do that. I think AI will allow you to take a step back.

When you combine the data which we have with the computer capabilities we will have in the future, we will see more things because also in science and Earth observation as well as the big missions we have a lot of data which we have to manage. Last but not least, this is why a lot of people work in space, not only in ESA but also in another organisations; it is the curiosity which drives us, not the money. I think that this is a pity that we may have lost that within schools.

We have learnt that there are no crazy technologies out there; even the Catholic Church is using a technology we have developed together with NASA – they use it for their old books in the Vatican library. Research is everywhere, and they should start to look at what else they could do with this technology. What else you can use the algorithm or the sensor for because there is always a second or the third use. I think that we should do this because that would be fun. Curiosity is driving research and the same curiosity is also the driver of innovation.


Frank Salzgeber

Head of Innovation and Ventures Office

Directorate of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications

European Space Agency

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