Support for national activities in the space sector

On 1 February, the new Ordinance of 17 December 2021 on the Promotion of National Activities in the Space Sector (NASO) came into force. SERI's objectives are threefold: to boost the acquisition and development of innovative capabilities in space, to support research institutions that are internationally relevant to the space sector, and to optimally prepare stakeholders for participation in ESA or other international programmes.

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Layered hills and dunes in the Hellespontus Motes region on Mars. Taken by the CaSSIS camera on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which was developed and is operated by the University of Bern thanks to NASO funding. Photo: CaSSIS / University of Bern, ESA

Switzerland is one of 22 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) and has been actively involved in its programmes and activities since it was founded. As most ESA member states, Switzerland also pursues national activities that are upstream and downstream of ESA programmes. These activities serve, on the one hand, to prepare and integrate Switzerland's scientific and industrial base with ESA programmes. Furthermore, they are intended to ensure effective utilisation of the results obtained - especially of a scientific nature - after the given activities cease to be part of the ESA framework. Since it does not have its own national space programme, Switzerland implements these upstream and downstream activities at national level mainly on the basis of the Ordinance of 17 December 2021 on the Promotion of National Activities in the Space Sector (NASO).

The Federal Administration has supported national space activities conducted by Swiss higher education institutions and public research institutes since 2008. The aim of these activities has always been to encourage innovation in the space sector and improve scientific, technological and financial transfers from ESA to Switzerland. In addition, Switzerland seeks to consolidate its position in space research in the long term and optimise Swiss participation in ESA programmes. NASO, which came into force on 1 February, will help to solidify and continue this successful approach.

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Prototype of laser-ionization mass spectrometer (LIMS) developed as part of an NASO-project for possible use on a future lunar mission. Photo: University of Bern

Acquisition and further development of innovation capacities

Thanks to NASO, SERI now has the opportunity to make contributions to multidisciplinary research and innovation projects in the space sector. These projects are awarded to consortia through a competitive tendering process that takes into account Swiss space policy, available funding and ESA's scientific and technical programme. SERI will prepare calls for proposals in conjunction with the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). The first calls for proposals are scheduled to start in the autumn.

Funding for consortium projects is mainly intended to enable the acquisition and further development of innovation capacities in relevant fields of expertise. In addition, funding programmes are designed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology to Switzerland, taking new requirements into account.

Over the next few years, these consortia, which must be comprised of research and industrial partners, will develop expertise in key thematic areas relating to the space sector. This will help to maintain and strengthen Switzerland's position in strategically important and promising areas of space research and innovation. Examples include space logistics, digital and optical communication systems, quantum networks and quantum encryption, life support systems, scientific instruments, or positioning, navigation and timing.

Moreover, consortia projects should be aligned with Swiss space policy and address the longer-term needs and strategies of industrial partners.

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Diagram showing the interaction of a given consortium with the ESA, the space industry and other players. Diagram: Hadassa Richard / own illustration

Support for research institutes of international importance

As part of ongoing national initiatives in the space sector, SERI provides funding to the International Space Science Institute (ISSI), which is an internationally important foundation for space research established under Swiss law. Based in Bern, the ISSI encourages interdisciplinary research in the fields of space science and Earth observation. The ISSI combines different disciplines to perform data interpretations in a broader scientific context. It uses these datasets to develop methods that exceed the capabilities of individual research groups. As a case in point, the ISSI is involved in Big Data for astronomical research and uses geostationary satellites to predict air quality. ISSI's sponsors include the Swiss Confederation, ESA, the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT), the University of Bern and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The Chinese partner institute, ISSI Beijing, is supported by the Chinese National Space Science Center (NSSC). Federal funding provided under the NASO will enable the ISSI to continue to take part in key research projects in the future. This is important for Switzerland's future research and innovation policy, in maintaining Switzerland's position as a research location and in enhancing the visibility of Swiss space science at home and abroad.

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Model cross-section of the Extreme Ultraviolet Solar Spectral Irradiance Monitor (SoSpIM), partly funded through NASO and developed at PMOD for the future SOLAR-C solar mission led by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA). Photo: © PMOD/WRC

Support for Swiss participation in space programmes and projects

SERI provides support to Swiss-based and ESA-affiliated institutions by facilitating their participation in space programmes and projects. SERI thus establishes the right conditions for the Swiss ecosystem to grow through future calls for proposals sponsored by European institutional and other international programmes. By promoting national activities in the space sector, SERI can also provide funding for the operation of Swiss scientific instruments on space missions, to the extent that these are not already funded by ESA programmes.

University and non-commercial research institutions outside the higher education sector are eligible for funding. SERI is also able to provide funding for information, consulting and networking activities. This includes Space Exchange Switzerland (SXS), which is a new platform for stakeholders in the Swiss space sector (see infobox).

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Jupiter's magnetosphere. The University of Geneva is involved in developing instruments to study magnetospheric particle acceleration, which could become the research focus of a new NASA mission. This activity is funded through the NASO.
Photo: COMPASS Collaboration

Implementation of this mandate will help SERI to intensify its contacts with Swiss space stakeholders at both national and international level and enhance the visibility of Swiss companies operating in the space sector, especially in relation to ESA and its technology requirements. SERI also expects to encourage talented young people to join the next generation of space experts through SXS activities. It also expects to help Swiss institutions to develop their knowledge and capabilities in the use of Earth observation data obtained from space.

As the Leading House, the EPFL is responsible for this mandate, which will be implemented together with ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich, the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) and the University of Lugano (USI). Space Exchange Switzerland acts in a complementary fashion to existing initiatives.

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