Meet Elisabetta Rugi Grond, CEO of Thales Alenia Space Switzerland
E. Rugi Grond: It’s a recent subsidiary, since it was acquired by Thales Alenia Space in November 2016. Based in Zurich, this Swiss company has 75 employees and encompasses the operations of RUAG’s former opto-electronics division. We specialize in the production of instruments for scientific satellites, as well as building optical communications terminals. Our core areas of expertise are in opto-electronics (systems combining electronics and optics, also referred to as optronics) and laser communications.
Space Q&A: People talk about your business as “high-tech jewelry”. How do you explain that?
E. Rugi Grond: Well, first I have to tell you our story. It all started in the mid-1990s. At the outset, we developed laser communications, especially for telecom constellations. This was a prosperous business up to the early 2000s. Then we got hit by the financial crisis, and we had to suspend some of our business lines. At that point, we decided to re-center our business by specializing in opto-electronic instruments. Making this kind of instrument demands unrivaled precision, but ultimately produces outstanding performance.
Space Q&A: Could you give us a few examples of your achievements?
E. Rugi Grond: There have been a number of them. Concerning the programs you’re familiar with, Thales Alenia Space Switzerland built instruments for several Sentinel families; these satellites are part of Europe’s ambitious environmental monitoring program, Copernicus. Some of our technologies were or are also used on emblematic programs such as Meteosat Third Generation (MTG), Bepi Colombo [a mission to explore the planet Mercury], the ATV resupply vessels for the International Space Station, and ESA’s IXV atmospheric reentry demonstrator. On the ATV, we built an infrared camera used to remotely manage the disintegration of these spacecraft when they burned up in the atmosphere at the end of their mission. On Europe’s IXV demonstrator, built by Thales Alenia Space, the main objective was to validate the atmospheric reentry technologies under actual flight conditions. We built an infrared camera for this mission, located near the capsule’s flaps, which operated during the atmospheric reentry and controlled landing portions of the flight.
Space Q&A: Is Switzerland also involved in the ExoMars program?
E. Rugi Grond: Of course! On the first mission, in 2016, we designed the telescope for the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (Cassis), installed on the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). On the second mission, slated for 2020, we’re making a camera that will be used to guide the drilling operations in the Martian soil, to a depth of two meters – a world first! The samples will then be analyzed by a science lab inside the rover. We’re looking for the possible existence of bacteria, or other forms of life. This data will then be transmitted via the TGO, which is already in orbit around Mars. In addition to its eponymous mission of looking for traces of gas in the Martian atmosphere, the TGO is also being used as a communications relay for NASA’s rovers and ESA’s upcoming rover.
Another one of our cameras used on the 2020 mission is a panoramic model that provides the “eyes” of the rover.
Space Q&A: What’s the best memory of your career?
E. Rugi Grond: When we managed to build the laser altimeter for the Mercury exploration satellite, Bepi Colombo. The idea for this instrument came from a professor at the University of Bern. When the concept was sufficiently mature, we worked with him right from the outset of the project. For me, it’s extraordinary that this type of instrument will be used in the exploration of Mercury, and I have an excellent memory of this effort. We also capitalized on this technology to offer similar instruments, used on subsequent exploration programs. Besides these memories, I also wanted to emphasize that we’re all very happy and proud to have joined Thales Alenia Space, because we can combine our expertise for Earth observation, science and telecom applications. In fact, opto-electronics opens the door to a very broad field of possibilities.
Space Q&A: What advice would you give to the current generation of female high-school and college students who are interested in scientific careers, especially the space sector?
E. Rugi Grond: I think that from the moment you realize that you have a passion for space, you shouldn’t ask yourself too many questions, but just plow ahead, while also making sure that you do what’s needed to meet your goals. Space is a very special field, but it’s also very exciting. You have to follow where your passion takes you if you’re looking for professional fulfillment.
First artistic view: © Thales Alenia Space/Briot
ATV-5 re-entry artistic view: © ESA
ExoMars Rover © Thales Alenia Space/Master Image Programmes