It’s hard to think we’re so special in the universe.”

Carol Mundel started her work as Chief Science Officer of the European Space Agency (ESA) in March last year. It wasn’t an easy landing: At the same time, the European company severed ties with its Russian partner, Roscosmos. to the invasion of Ukraine. After the separation, several projects were up in the air, including important missions such as Euclid – called to solve the mystery of the elusive dark matter – and ExoMars – the first European rover on Mars. During this whirlwind, Juice set out, an ambitious mission to Jupiter’s icy moons to try to unravel the mysteries of those aquatic worlds that might promise life.

And after a while, after overcoming many setbacks, Euclid went into space a year later to reveal to us images with unprecedented detail. All of this is framed in a changing space environment, in which NASA is trying to return to the Moon to prepare its way to Mars, while China follows closely behind. Meanwhile, Europe is trying not to be left behind, at least because Mundell is so responsible, and continues to maintain its leading role in scientific matters. Undoubtedly, the British astronomer, who has already served as an adviser to the UK government during Covid and Brexit, is taking on a challenge with gusto.

-He has been the Scientific Director for over a year. What balance will I create?

– It’s been an incredible year. I joined a month before our first L-class science mission was launched to Jupiter. Additionally, we embarked on two expeditions, one with China and the other with Japan. Then we worked in parallel to get approval from 22 Member States for the Euclid, LISA interferometer mission and the Envision mission to Venus. There was a lot of work behind the scenes and it was my first year in the role. ‘Are you going to be good at your job? Let’s see if you can prove it.’ It was an interesting debut year.

– Did you expect it to be so intense?

I worked hard when I was Chief Scientific Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During that period we had Brexit and Covid. We also faced the fall of Kabul, which taught me to work in a very different way with a very broad portfolio. Science had to be combined with other aspects such as diplomacy, relationship building, technology, engineering, cost control, budgeting etc. It’s a big job, but I think it’s very special. And I don’t own anything, it’s not mine, but I work on behalf of our scientific community, our industry, our member states. I have also had the privilege of participating in the work that previous directors and committees have worked on to prepare for their launch. Granted, I’ve been involved in some as a scientist, but to get inside and see the work is incredible.

See also  Mario Picasso | Meteorologist confirms space has never been "science fiction".

— and it comes at a time when the space industry is growing at a rate not seen since the Cold War.

– This is a very special moment. Next year, the ESA will turn 50. The organization was founded out of two institutions, one for pitchers and one for research. It was a marriage made in heaven. Since then, the agency has become more and more diverse: we do all kinds of things, although the science program is the backbone. Europe is a world leader in the scientific space, which is very positive for me because it allows us to create many friendships and collaborations. But space is also a field, so it is becoming a crowded and competitive space. We need standards of behavior to ensure we operate sustainably in space.

What is your assessment of Euclid’s work in its first year?

– This is a very important year because we have achieved many things. First, let’s understand how the ship works. Our optics contained a tiny layer of ice, a layer so thin that its thickness was less than a strand of DNA. But our system is very sensitive and I noticed it. We melted that water and it was great. In terms of work, we have been able to complete 4% of the planned map in three months, which tells us that it is moving very quickly. The images we’ve just presented show the most important things: First, a panoramic view in a single scene that’s two and a half times the area of ​​the entire moon. On the other hand, sensitivity and sharpness are exquisite, allowing us to see individual objects in great detail, going back 10 billion years in cosmic history.

– and all of this will help solve the mystery of dark matter.

– All of these are important to cosmologists because they can observe tiny distortions in galaxies that can help map the nature of dark matter and energy. Any kind of astrophysicist or scientist who wants to ask questions about the universe has a wealth of data to explore, from planetary-sized objects to how galaxies form to how star clusters form.

– What did you think when you saw the pictures for the first time?

– This is incredible because, as a species, we marvel at this small part of the universe; But on the other hand, we managed to find this technology to watch these beautiful and impressive images. And when you begin to understand that physics is encoded in light and patterns, it’s even more amazing. It’s incredible that we know how to map the invisible, the invisible.

See also  An extraterrestrial civilization uses black holes as infinite batteries

– Did you expect the telescope to work so well?

– We designed it. But there are never absolute guarantees in space. It is a very hostile environment. However, there is experience in Europe: works like Herschel or Gaia have given us many keys, as has James Webb and now the development of Euclid tools. Additionally, we are responsible for manufacturing with silicon carbide, which is non-distorting and thermally very stable. We had a pedigree, and it was only natural that we could do something like Euclid.

Although the mission faced various challenges and setbacks such as the war between Russia and Ukraine…

-Due to the collision, we were unable to fly on the Russian space agency Roscosmos rocket as planned. Again, the team was working under some pressure because in just a few months they had to design an adaptation of the probe for a Falcon 9 rocket, which was more powerful and could propel the telescope. There were also problems with orientation and tuning… these types of tasks are a roller coaster and require teams to work intensively. And, you can try all this in a lab, but when you get to space, to the real world, it’s different. Unexpected things always happen there. At that point you can only think that you have done everything in your power. So when you look at pictures like the ones we just released, you see more than just a picture: you see all the work behind it, the entire team’s effort to get there.

-In recent decades, space has been a collective domain, but now with the emergence of China or the war with Russia, something seems to have changed. Has it affected our work?

– Scientists naturally collaborate, especially in space science, as no country can undertake this type of work alone. But science is also highly competitive. That’s not a bad thing, because as long as it’s done equally, fairly and respectfully, it’s excellence. But if you look at the broader geopolitical context, you also realize that nationalistic science rarely excels. That’s why international collaboration is so important, because you bring together different ideas and great minds to get a better answer. ESA is made up of 22 member states and it was clear on their part that they did not want to continue cooperating with Roscosmos when Russia invaded Ukraine. That is the order of our council and that is the right decision. Of course, that decision had Euclid-like consequences. Science knows no boundaries, but it also works in society. And we couldn’t continue to cooperate. For China, ESA has always maintained a cooperative relationship under the best European standards. Instead, NASA chooses not to cooperate with them, and that is its government’s decision.

See also  Scientists discover a metal ball at the center of the Earth: what does it mean?

-But it continues to cooperate with Russia, and in fact, ties between Roscosmos and NASA have strengthened in recent years.

– Yes, but we analyze on a case by case basis. Our Council decided not to have any kind of relationship with Russia, which is the only country in this situation. With the rest we are developing interesting scientific collaborations and we are guided by the mandate of the Member States. We are completely transparent in this process and with this, integrity is maintained in the work.

– We talked about dark matter and energy as a mystery to be solved. But what mysteries do you think still remain that will be unraveled in the years to come?

– From a cosmological point of view, we have two major tasks that are now developing. The first is LISA, humanity’s first space-based gravitational interferometer to fly and find answers to what happened when supermassive black holes collided and disrupted spacetime, or the remnants of the Big Bang. The other mission that excites me is Athena, the first X-ray lab in space. Of the 5% of matter we can see, roughly half are at temperatures greater than a million degrees. We don’t understand why. What is the universe, how does it work, what is it made of or are we alone in this vast and interesting universe?

– And as ESA’s Science Director, do you think we’re alone?

– There are many stars and many planets. Whether we find life or we’re alone, I think it has profound implications. Personally I believe there is a probability of life there; It’s hard to think that we’re so special in the universe. But was that life capable of creating sentient beings that could develop the technology to communicate with us now in this era? I think it’s too low.

Traditionally, Europe has focused more on the scientific study of the universe than on human exploration. This trend seems to be changing in recent years.

-We have an iconic science program that is inevitable, and now it’s inevitable to build that ‘research’ part. Our technology has traveled across planets, landed on distant bodies in the solar system, and we know how to do it. To do this with humans, of course, requires a different kind of technology, because we want to bring them safely. We are very involved with the International Space Station, our astronauts fly there regularly, so we know how space affects people. When all those experiences come together, you get really great skills. It is a very exciting time for everyone.

Read more

Local News