Meet Ornella Bombaci, expert in Earth observation
Could you please explain your job?
I have been with Thales Alenia Space for 27 years now. Today, I’m in charge of the Observation Payload Engineering department in the Observation and Navigation domain in Italy. I coordinate a 40-person team that designs, develops and tests microwave instruments for Earth observation.
I’ve spent my entire career at Thales Alenia Space. Prior to my current position, I held various engineering and management positions in Remote Sensing, encompassing systems, ground segments and payloads. It’s been a long journey with a variety of technical and managerial challenges, plus the pleasure of knowing that our teamwork enhances Earth monitoring and security. If it now seems normal that we can observe our planet day and night, under any weather conditions, that’s because of the ongoing technical progress in this field, to which I was lucky enough to contribute. We design, develop and test the remote sensing systems that have completely changed the field of Earth monitoring.
Today, thanks to our state-of-the-art satellites like COSMO-SkyMed, we can help prevent disasters or at least monitor their effects almost immediately, even in remote locations, as shown by recent catastrophic earthquakes. I was also fortunate enough to participate in space exploration programs, namely Cassini to Saturn’s moon Titan, Mars Express and ExoMars 2016. These programs gave scientists a deeper understanding of our Solar System, along with major clues to the Earth’s own history and how to protect our planet.
What are you most proud of in your day-to-day activity?
The real beauty of my work is that I feel it’s a bridge between state-of-art technologies wielded by experts and the public. Our overriding aim is to improve the quality of life. The systems we design and build help space agencies from around the world protect our planet. We’re now at a turning point, as we all worry about sustainable development, climate change, the Earth’s health and more. I am very proud of doing my best to contribute to this vital task for the future of our planet and all upcoming generations.
I’m also very proud of being the mother of three sons, and that’s related. I hope that my work experience, which they see every day, will make them realize that it’s possible to realize their dreams through commitment and dedication, while also achieving a fair work-life balance. This is probably the most important achievement my generation should leave them.
Which aspects of your career have you enjoyed the most?
Discovering water in the 20-km-wide lake of liquid water underneath solid ice in the Planum Australe region of Mars, published online by “Science” (First Release) on July 25, 2018. This discovery was based on the analysis of data from the MARSIS sounder (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding), an instrument that I helped design and develop in the early 2000s. Radar images collected between May 2012 and December 2015 contain evidence of liquid water trapped below the ice of the south polar layered deposits. This result was achieved by a team from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), building on the work of Professor G. Picardi from the University of Rome La Sapienza, who had assumed the presence of liquid water under the Martian surface in the 1990s and imagined an instrument of this type. Thales Alenia Space in Italy designed and developed the instrument for the Italian space agency and delivered it to ESA for the Mars Express mission. The spacecraft was launched in 2003, so it took more than 15 years for this unique scientific achievement. By analyzing Martian history in this way, we get a foreshadowing of the possible desertification of Earth. Moreover the presence of water in the Mars subsurface boosts the possibility of human exploration, one of the main challenges of space exploration in the next two decades. In short, this was the most concrete example of my real motivation in work: Space for Life.
In 3 words, what are the qualities required in your profession?
- Teamwork: nothing is achievable alone
- Passion for space and technological progress
- Work without mental barriers: cooperation and visionary innovation is the right mix.
That’s more than three words, but they’re all very important!
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