Space Q&A with Walter Cugno - Getting ready for Europe’s landing on Mars!
Walter Cugno: Hello.
Space Q&A: How are things going these days Walter, with a very critical period looming ahead?
W. Cugno: Well, as crazy as it sounds [still talking about a journey of nearly 500 million km], this interplanetary trip to Mars goes smoothly (laughs). Everything is nominal to date!
Space Q&A: What makes ExoMars so special?
W. Cugno: We’re already pretty certain there is methane on Mars: the Mars Express orbiter detected methane gas on the planet in 2004, and in 2014, NASA’s Curiosity rover also detected spikes in the gas from the planet’s surface. The UK-led Beagle 2 lander touched down in 2003, but ran into trouble before it could contact Earth. If successful, and I am very confident, the Italian-built Schiaparelli lander would become the first European spacecraft to touch down on Mars and return data. With ExoMars 2016 we are going to use a brand-new landing technology, paving the way for the mission in 2020 when the spacecraft will penetrate the Martian atmosphere and release the descent module, which in turn will release a landing platform on Mars, including a rover. Remember that Thales Alenia Space Italy led an international team to develop a number of technological solutions that would meet the requirements of this exciting new project.
Space Q & A: How do you see the future of the ExoMars program, and more generally exploration endeavors at Thales Alenia Space?
W. Cugno: The ESA ministerial-level meeting in December will decide whether to approve extra funding for the second ExoMars mission. I am quite confident in ExoMars’ latest funding tranche … and I’ll be even more confident after Schiaparelli lands! ExoMars is the first mission designed to look for past or present life. Our 2020 mission will drill below the surface, culminating more than a decade of hard work… but that’s not the end of the story. We need to look further ahead, toward a Mars sample return, and beyond.
Space Q & A: Could a “Moon village” be the next logical step in developing the capabilities needed as we head into the further reaches of the Solar System?
W. Cugno: An outpost on the Moon could be one of the proposals submitted to the ministerial-level conference in December. We would of course be ready to support this project, just as we are ready for future cislunar space stations, human outposts around Earth's moon. This could pave the way for trips into deeper space, such as to a near-Earth asteroid, or a larger leap to Mars.
SPACE Q & A: ExoMars is arguably the most audacious space mission of the century. How do you feel as one of the heads of the team?