Switzerland and Space Sciences: an over 40 years old success story

Willy Benz, Universität Bern, President of the Swiss Space Commission


Space research in Switzerland, as well as in many other European countries, is eminently an international endeavour. Given the infrastructure (and the associated costs) required to carry out this type of research, the need for international collaborations in these matters was seen from the beginning as a necessity rather than a choice. Today, it is regarded by most as a unique opportunity to bring together research teams from across Europe and the world to work jointly on designing unique space missions in order to address a common science question.

Switzerland recognized these opportunities from the beginning and became very active in the negotiations that took place to create the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) in 1962. A little more than a decade later in 1975, when the concept of a single European Space Agency (ESA) regrouping all various European space activities imposed itself, Switzerland was again amongst the ten founding Member States (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom). Today, ESA counts 17 Member States (15 of them are also EU members) and additional countries are negotiating to join the Agency. Finally, in 1986, following a proposal from Switzerland, ESA created its first optional science programme: PRODEX (PROgramme de Développement d’EXpériences scientifiques). This programme allows countries without a space agency on their own to finance space experiments developed by their research institutes and/or universities, directly related to ESA missions or in line with the overall science objectives of the Agency. As the founding State, Switzerland was initially the only member of the programme but was rapidly joined by other countries. Today, the PRODEX programme includes Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and Czech Republic.

PRODEX gave Swiss scientists working at research institutes and universities the financial means to participate fully in the design and construction of space experiments. With the requirement that half of the allocated funds be spent in contracts with industry, PRODEX also brought together the academic and the space industry world of the country. Over the years, this has not only led to very successful hardware developments but also to a tradition of collaboration and exchanges that may otherwise not have taken place at least not to this extent.

The twenty-year commemoration of the creation of the “bridge to experimental space research” as PRODEX is sometimes called, took place in 2007 in form of a Symposium held in St-Gallen and Altenrhein [1]. Looking back was impressive indeed and made clear that Swiss scientists participated in one form or another to many of the most important space missions to date. During these 20 years, a budget of CHF 109 million was allocated to forty-four development projects originating from all over the country and covering a vast area of sciences ranging from astronomy, earth observations, and fundamental physics to biology. Starting in 2008, Switzerland will have an annual budget of around EUR 7.2 million to be used for PRODEX projects. Swiss researchers can use this funding for hardware and software development projects in all disciplines relating to space research.


Today, a record number of ESA missions or missions with a significant ESA involvement are in operations exploring the Sun (SOHO, Ulysses), the solar system (Mars and Venus Express, Rosetta, Double Star, Cluster, Cassini-Huygens), and the Universe (Integral, XMM-Newton, Hubble). The wealth of data received from these missions is enormous and has contributed significantly to a better understanding of the Universe. Who has not been impressed by the extraordinary images from Hubble Space Telescope and who can forget the breath taking images of Claude Nicollier, the Swiss ESA Astronaut, fixing and upgrading it?

In the implementation phase we have a mission to the planet Mercury (BepiColombo), two missions devoted to the early universe and its constituents (Herschel and Planck), one dedicated to the three-dimensional mapping of our own Galaxy (Gaia), as well as the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope (JWST). All of them have Swiss involvement in one way or another.

The longer-term future of astronomy from space in Europe has been defined by the Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 exercise organized by ESA. In April 2004, ESA issued a call for the science themes of the future and received in response 151 novel ideas from individual scientists across Europe. After the distillation of these ideas through ESA’s advisory structure and a public workshop, the four main questions that will underpin the space efforts during the years 2015-2025 emerged:

  1. What are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life?
  2. How does the Solar System work?
  3. What are the fundamental physical laws of the Universe?
  4. How did the Universe originate and what is it made of?

Clearly, profound questions that were impossible to address scientifically two decades ago are now being raised with a clear expectation for answers. These will have to be provided by space missions designed around these themes. A staggering 50 mission concepts were received by ESA in response to its Call for Proposal. A first selection of nine candidate missions for the first launches of Cosmic Vision (2017 and 2018) has already been made. These candidates span a large spectrum of sciences ranging from the mapping of the dark Universe (Euclid) and the detection of gravitational waves (Lisa), high energy astrophysics (Xeus), the formation of galaxies, stars and planets (Spica), the detection of exoplanets (Plato), the study of the giant planets in our own solar system (Laplace and Tandem), a sample return from a near Earth asteroid (Marco Polo), to the study of the fundamental length scales in plasmas (Cross Scale). Swiss scientists are again involved at various levels in almost all of these missions.

Not surprisingly, the path between the idea and its realization is long and sometimes difficult. New technology has to be developed, science goals have to be refined, financial difficulties have to be overcome but in the end we will have learned something more about how the Universe came to be, how it is evolving, and our place in it. Finally, and perhaps equally important, we will also have demonstrated our abilities to work together to address some of the greatest scientific and technological challenges of our times.



This article is an excerpt from the jubilee brochure "Astronomy in Switzerland" published on the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.