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The Exploration of Space – pushing the frontiers of our knowledge
Thomas Reiter, ESA Interagency Coordinator
IAEA Ministerial Conference, Vienna, 28 November 2018
Your Royal Heighness Victoria of Sweden,
Dear Director General Amano,
Dear Director General Yong
Distingusished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The strive to explore the unknown is as old as humankind itself. Humans were always longing to discover the worlds that lay „behind the horizon“, and were thrilled to improve our understanding of our nature and environment.
This fact is nicely illustrated by a wook carving in an book written by the French astronomer, Camille Flamarion, towards the end oft the 19th century, which shows a person, who apparently found the point where heaven and Earth meet, and is looking behind the primum mobile. Less than 100 years later the space-age began – from this moment on it was possible, to extend our research beyond the limits of our atmosphere, to gain more and more insight into our solar system and the universe, and even to overcome the bonds of gravity and look at our Planet from space.
Today space has become an indispensable part of our daily life, much more than most people might be aware of: without the services in telecommunication, in satellite navigation, and the fortune of data generated by earth observation satellites, our highly industrialized economies would hardly function. At the same time spaceflight is pushing the frontiers of technological capabilities, it helps us to steadily expand our knowledge about our Planet and its climate, the solar system and the universe. It is one of the motors for innovation.
Spaceflight is inherently difficult, which becomes apparent already in the very first seconds and minutes, when we try to leave the surface of this Planet. For astronauts the journey to the international space station ISS starts with this very critical phase when they need to overcome the attraction of our Planet. Since almost 20 years astronauts are living and working on-board the ISS.
Most of their work is dedicated to a wide spectrum of scientific research – fundamental research as well as applied sciences, and we are using this platform to further advance technologies that will help us to extend the presence of humans into space. Its quite amazing, which insights we can achieve by removing one important parameter: gravity! Gravity plays a key role in the microscopic-, even in the subatomic domain, up to the macroscopic domain. In the weightlessness of this unique laboratory in low Earth orbit we achieve insights in disciplines like physics, chemistry and biology, which we could never get here on Earth, where Gravity is persistent and cannot be „switched off“.
The vantage point from low Earth orbit reveals the beauty of our own blue planet - but it also makes us aware how unique and fragile this place is!
The atmosphere appears only as a very thin layer! And while we are enchanted by the amazing light effects of the Aurora in the polar regions, caused by solar eruptions, we recognize even more, that it is just the combination of our Earth’s atmosphere and a magnetic field, that protects life here at the surface against such harsh effects.
Still we are determined to move further out, continue to explore the surface of the Moon and other celestial bodies.
One of the fundamental questions for humankind is the search for life beyond our own Planet. We would like to answer the question, if we are alone in this universe, or if life might exists somewhere else. The place, where the answer to this question might be found in very near future could be our neighbour planet Mars.
We have already learned a lot about our solar system and some of its planets. Together with NASA we were able to land a European probe in 2005 at the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn, named after the Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens.
Only 4 years ago with the ESA-Mission Rosetta we explored the surface of a comet, Churyumov Gerassimenko, and even landed on its surface. Could it be that the water in our oceans was brought to Earth by comets, and could the possibly have brought the buildings stones for the emergence of life?
Just a few weeks ago we launched a probe towards Mercury, the first planet in our solar system, named after the Italian Scientist Bepi Colombo, who made some very important discoveries related to this Planet. It will take 7 years, until this probe will have reached his destination and can start to gather precious data about a place in our solar system, which has quite a lot of similarities with Earth.
Spaceflight takes place at the frontier of technological capabilities, and it is therefore one of the drivers for technical innovation. Spaceflight today in indispensable for our economies, as it provides lots of services that we are using day to day. It also helps to increase our knowledge about the universe, and it’s an excellent domain for international cooperation – ISS. If we all pull together, be it in the field of spaceflight or any other field of science, we can achieve so much more!