Space research in Switzerland 2018–2020

At the 43rd COSPAR Assembly, the Swiss National Committee on Space Research submitted its 2018–2020 report entitled, ‘Space Research in Switzerland’, which highlights the active role played by the Swiss space community in space research. This report to the COSPAR Assembly presents the various institutions in Switzerland as well as current missions and projects in which Swiss partners are involved.

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Switzerland has actively pursued space research for a long time, even before the European Space Agency (ESA) was founded in 1975. In fact, Switzerland is a founding member. The Swiss Committee on Space Research (CSR), which is part of the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT), coordinates and promotes space research in Switzerland. It also maintains contact with international organisations such as the European Space Agency (through the ESA’s Science Programme) and Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which was created by the International Council for Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1958 to promote scientific research in space on an international level. Published to coincide with the 43rd COSPAR Assembly, the CSR’s 2018-2020 report presents the various institutions and the many missions and projects that are currently under way.

In Switzerland, space research is conducted by several research teams at Switzerland’s two federal institutes of technology (ETHZ and EPFL), at cantonal universities - including observatories - and in private companies. It is mainly funded by these players with substantial contributions from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the federal government. The CSR’s report covers the full range of Swiss research activities and thus provides an overview of the relevant institutions and an informative summary of ongoing projects. Below you will find a summary of the main areas of space research in Switzerland.

Earth observation
Earth observation activities are carried out by several cantonal universities in collaboration with teams from around the world. Research is based on Earth observation satellite systems from Europe, the USA, India, Canada and Japan and can be divided into four main areas:

  • Basic research;
  • Applied research;
  • Operational applications, services and tools;
  • Data collection, processing and competence centres.

Swiss researchers are involved in all stages of space missions, from the planning and construction phase to the collection and use of data. This is usually handled within the framework of successful international partnerships, with ESA or NASA.

Two examples include the INTEGRAL mission and the STEREO mission. ESA's INTEGRAL mission (INTernational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) is carried out in cooperation with Russia and the United States and aims to detect some of the most powerful rays in space. The work involves building the world’s most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission currently consists of a STEREO-A space observatory that is currently orbiting the Sun and slowly catching up with the Earth. This perspective from outside the Earth-Sun line allows researchers to study the structure and evolution of solar storms that erupt on the Sun and shift in space.

Switzerland also has two centres that are directly linked to space research: The International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern and the INTEGRAL Science Data Centre (ISDC) in Versoix.

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Research on microgravity
Various research groups also use the International Space Station (ISS) for their experiments. Swiss researchers actively prepare their experiments for the ISS to be carried out in zero gravity and use parabolic flights and rocket probes for this purpose. New knowledge on ageing gained through fundamental research carried out under zero-gravity conditions has provided a better understanding of biomedical processes, since most of the negative effects observed in space are similar to those of the ageing process that occurs naturally in humans on Earth. Such experiments and the results they produce deepen our knowledge of biology and medicine in general.

Cooperation a major factor for Switzerland
All projects, as well as the related development of new technologies and/or the creation of platforms and space instruments, are open to students enrolled in tertiary-level study programmes. Switzerland’s involvement in space research greatly helps to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers. Finally, these projects are carried out in close cooperation with industry, which is a key partner in these activities.

Overall, the report shows that Switzerland is active in many areas of space research. One reason for this is its extensive financial resources, as Switzerland has the 7th largest ‘national’ budget within ESA. At the same time, Switzerland recognised early on that space science is only possible through cooperation. It has therefore always focused on niches, both in science and in industry.

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