It’s hard to think that we are so special in the universe.”

Carol Mundell began her job as chief scientific officer of the European Space Agency (ESA) in March last year. The landing was not easy: at the same moment, the European agency broke off relations with its Russian counterpart Roscosmos due to to the invasion of Ukraine. The breakup left several projects in limbo, including important missions such as Euclid, designed to unravel the mystery of elusive dark matter, and ExoMars, the first European rover on Mars. During all this maelstrom, Juice embarked on an ambitious journey to the icy moons of Jupiter to try to unravel the mysteries of these watery worlds that promise life.

And soon after, after overcoming several setbacks, Euclid also went into space to show us images in unprecedented detail just a year later. All this is happening in a changing space context, in which NASA is trying to return to the Moon to prepare its way to Mars, while China follows closely behind. Meanwhile, Europe is trying to keep up and at least continue to maintain its leading role in scientific matters, with Mundell being the most responsible. It is no doubt a challenge that the British astronomer, who has already served as an adviser to the UK government during Covid and Brexit, takes on with enthusiasm.

-She has been in the position of scientific director for more than a year. What balance would I make?

-It was an incredible year. I joined a month before the launch of our first L-class science mission to Jupiter, Juice. In addition, we launched two more missions: one in cooperation with China, the other with Japan. Then Euclid, although in parallel we also worked to get approval from the 22 member countries for the Lisa interferometer mission and the EnVision mission that will go to Venus. There was a lot of work behind the scenes and this was my first year in the role. I noticed this pressure that says, “Are you going to be good at your job?” Let’s see if you can prove it. It was an interesting introductory year.

– Did you expect it to be so intense?

-I worked a lot when I was chief scientific adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During that period we had Brexit and Covid. We also experienced the fall of Kabul, which taught me to work in a very different way, with a very broad portfolio. Science had to be combined with other aspects such as diplomacy, relationship building, technology, engineering, cost control, budgets… It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s special. And I don’t own anything, it’s not mine, but I work on behalf of our scientific community, our industry, our member states, who fund this. And I was also privileged to be part of the missions that previous directors and teams were working on in preparation for launch. It’s true that as a scientist I’ve been involved in some of them, but to go in and see how it works from the inside is incredible.

“And it also comes at a time when the space sector is growing at a rate not seen since the Cold War.

– This is a special moment. Next year ESA will turn 50 years old. The organization was founded on the basis of two organizations: one for pitchers and one for research. It was a match made in heaven. And since then, the agency has become increasingly diverse: we do anything, although the core remains the scientific program. Europe is a world leader in science and for me this is very positive because it allows us to build a lot of friendships and collaborations. But space is also a sphere of activity and therefore becomes a crowded and contested place. We need standards of conduct to ensure sustainable operations in space.

– What assessment do you give to the Euclid mission in the first year of its existence?

-It was a very important year because we achieved several things. First, we understand how the ship works. There was some ice on our optics, a layer so thin that its thickness was less than the thickness of a DNA strand. But our system is so sensitive that I noticed it. We managed to melt this water, which is great. As for the mission, in three months we managed to complete 4% of the planned map, which tells us that it is moving very quickly. The images we just presented show very important things: first of all, a wide field of view in a single frame that is approximately two and a half times the area of ​​the full Moon. On the other hand, sensitivity and sharpness are excellent, allowing us to go back 10 billion years in cosmic history and see individual objects in great detail.

“And all this will help us unravel the mystery of dark matter.”

“All of this is important for cosmologists because they will be able to observe small distortions in galaxies, which will help them map the nature of dark matter and energy. Astrophysicists and scientists of all types who want to ask questions about the Universe will be given a wealth of data to study, from planet-sized objects to how galaxies form and how star clusters evolve.

-What did you feel when you first saw these images?

– It’s incredible because we, as a species, admire this small part of the Universe; but on the other hand, we were able to invent technology that allows us to see these beautiful and impressive images. And when you start to understand that physics is encoded in light and shapes, it becomes even more amazing. The fact that we know how to match the invisible with the visible is incredible.

– Did you expect the telescope to work so well?

-We designed it for this. But in space there is never a complete guarantee. It’s a very hostile environment. However, Europe has experience: missions such as Herschel or Gaia have given us many clues, as has the development of instruments for the James Webb and now Euclid itself. In addition, we are responsible for building with silicon carbide, a very tough material that does not deform and is very thermally stable. We had a pedigree and it was natural that we could do something like Euclid.

-Even though the mission faced various problems and setbacks, such as the war between Russia and Ukraine…

– Due to the conflict, we were not able to fly on a rocket of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, as planned. Again, the team was working under some pressure, because in just a few months they had to design an adaptation of the probe for the Falcon 9 rocket, which is quite powerful and could cause the telescope to shake. There were also problems with orientation and setup… Missions like this are a roller coaster and the teams have to work hard. Also, you can try all this in the laboratory, but when you get into space, into the real world, everything is different. There will always be something happening there that you didn’t expect. At this moment, you can only think that you did everything in your power. So when you see images like the ones we just published, you see so much more than just an image: you see all the work behind it, the effort of an entire team to achieve a goal.

– In recent decades, space has been an area of ​​cooperation, but now, with the emergence of China or the war with Russia, something seems to have changed. Has this affected our missions?

– Scientists naturally collaborate, especially in the field of space science, because no one country can carry out such missions alone. But science is also extremely competitive. And that’s not a bad thing, because it promotes excellence if it’s done fairly, honestly, and respectfully. But if you look at the broader geopolitical environment, you also realize that nationalist science is rarely outstanding. This is why international collaboration is so important: you bring together diverse ideas and the best minds to get the best answer. ESA has 22 member states, and when Russia invaded Ukraine, it was very clear on their part that they did not want to continue cooperating with Roscosmos. This was the mandate of our council and it was the right decision. Of course, this decision had consequences, as in the case of Euclid. Science sees no boundaries, but it also works in society. And we could not continue cooperation at any cost. Regarding China, ESA maintains a cooperative relationship that always meets European quality standards. On the contrary, NASA chooses not to cooperate with them, and this is the decision of its government.

“But it continues to cooperate with Russia, and in fact, ties between Roscosmos and NASA have strengthened in recent years.

– Yes, but we look into each case. Our council has decided not to maintain any relations with Russia, and this is the only country that is in such a situation. We are building interesting scientific collaborations with the others and are guided by the mandate of the participating countries. We are completely transparent in this process and this ensures mission integrity is maintained.

-Are we talking about dark matter and energy as a mystery to be solved? But what other mysteries do you think we have yet to explain and will be explained in the coming years?

– From a cosmological point of view, we have two great missions that are currently being developed. The first is LISA, the first time humanity will fly on a space-based gravitational interferometer to find answers to questions about what happens when supermassive black holes collide and destroy space-time, or what the remnants of the Big Bang are. Another mission that excites me is Athena, the first X-ray observatory in space. Of the 5% of material we see, about half is over a million degrees in temperature. And we don’t understand why. We also have other iconic questions, such as what is the Universe, how does it work, what is it made of, or are we alone in this vast and interesting space?

– And as the scientific director of ESA, do you think that we are alone?

-There are many stars and many planets. I think whether we discover life or remain alone will have profound consequences. Personally, I believe that the possibility of life exists; It’s hard to think that we are so special in the universe. But was this life capable of giving birth to beings who feel and can develop technologies to communicate with us right now, in this era? I think it’s much less likely.

– Traditionally, Europe pays more attention to the scientific exploration of the Universe rather than to human exploration. Although the trend seems to be changing in recent years.

– We have such a landmark scientific program that it was inevitable to develop a more “research” part. Our technology has traveled to planets, we have landed on distant bodies in the solar system, demonstrating that we know how to do it. Of course, doing this with people requires other technologies because we want to get them back safe and sound. We have a very close connection to the International Space Station and our astronauts fly there regularly, so we know how space affects people. When all of these experiences come together, you develop truly special abilities. This is a very exciting time for everyone.

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