Prospects for future Russian-Italian collaboration in space activities
Perhaps not so many people know about the pioneering and leading roles that Italy has played over the last sixty years in the exploration and exploitation of space, writes Skoltech's Assistant Professor Alessandro Golkar in a piece, contributed to Sk.ru. The article reflects the personal opinions of the author only.
Italy has been, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and Canada, the fourth space-faring country launching a satellite to space – the third one having launched it independently from its San Marco launch base off the coast of Malindi, Kenya, using Scout launchers provided by the United States. Its “Sergei Korolev” or “Wernher Von Braun” of sort was Professor Luigi Broglio, whom from the historic School of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” launched an ambitious satellite program that ended up spurring the development of much of the national space industry, in addition to other historic figures such as Professor Luigi Napolitano at the University of Naples. Broglio’s legacy is deeply rooted into European space programs as well – the highly successful Vega launch vehicle, now operated by Arianespace and mostly manufactured and designed by Avio of Colleferro, Rome, (through its company ELV), is the intellectual legacy of the professor’s ambitious plans of pushing his country to be a leading space-faring nation in Europe and have an independent launch capability. Although to be fair, in his original plans, Broglio intended doing so improving the American Scout launch vehicle, and not by developing a launcher from grassroots. Avio has been recently named as one of the "5 Space Companies To Wach in 2016" by Space News - together with the likes of SpaceX, OneWeb, Planet Labs, and the United Launch Alliance.
The country has historically been active and still has a prominent role today on all fronts of the space industry, from human exploration (in particular with a long series of Italian astronauts visiting the International Space Station – ISS, or MKC in Russian), to robotic exploration (Cassini, Rosetta, Exomars), space science (as with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer), Earth Observation (with its COSMO-Skymed radar constellation), telecommunications (Italsat F1, F2 and more recently the Sicral family, Athena Fidus, and the Q/V band payload on Alphasat), launchers (Vega, and now Vega-C), and a long standing tradition on downstream applications and services in telecommunications and Earth Observation. More than 50% of the pressurized modules of the ISS/MKC have been manufactured by Thales Alenia Space Italy in Turin, and also Turin is where the potable water for the Russian, EU and US segments of the Space Station is produced. Italy has been one of the first countries introducing mass production of satellites in the early 1990s with the Globalstar 1st generation program, with the Assembly Integration and Testing facilities of Alenia Aerospazio in Rome (now Thales Alenia Space Italia). As of today, Italy stands as the third contributing member state of the European Space Agency after France and Germany. This is a non exhaustive sample of the vast array of programs that have been running in the country in the last two decades.
Few countries in Europe can claim such a vast portfolio of activity for a rather relatively modest institutional budget available (about 600 million Euro per year for civil programs, including the national contribution to the European Space Agency and the activities of the Italian Space Agency, ASI, and an additional 50-100 million Euro contribution coming from the Italian Ministry of Defense). Notwithstanding an increasing budget pressure due to the general economic scenario and having lost leadership positions in several European programs over the decades, space remains a high priority for Italy and new programs are now being formulated.
Russia has been a strong collaborator of Italy in space and other industries, architecture, and arts. It is quite apparent when seeing how many Fiat 124 automobiles, rebranded Lada 1200 (also known as “Zhiguli” and “Kopeyka”!), still wander around the city of Moscow - or seeing the architecture of many of the historic buildings in Saint Petersburg. In the field of aeronautics, the two countries also had an historic collaboration with the contributions of Roberto Bartini to the development of the Russian aeronautics industry in the middle of the last century (known in Russia as Roberto Ludvigovich Bartini – to whom Sergei Korolev himself used to refer him to as his teacher). In nuclear physics, the story and contributions to Russian science in the field by Bruno Pontecorvo (who later assumed the patronymic ‘Maksimovic’) are also well known. The friendship between the two countries has deep roots in history, and is well reflected by the many areas of science and technology in which the two countries collaborate today. A strong collaboration program in the aerospace industry has been recently agreed between Prime Minister Renzi and President Putin, including the bilateral collaboration between Roscosmos and ASI (Spektr-M/Millimetron, GAMMA-400), and joint European-Russian space programs (Exomars), as well as collaboration in the aeronautics industry (such as the recent Helivert Joint Venture between Russian Helicopters and Varese’s Agusta Westland).
Italy is currently undergoing a major space strategy review, industry consolidation and agency restructuring process with a government-led “Cabina di Regia”, or “Control Room” in English, including all national stakeholders with major investments in space such as ASI, the Government, the Defense Ministry, the Regions, universities, and others actors. The process is a best practice approach to make more evident the pervasiveness of space technologies and applications on a number of economic activities as well as to exploit the synergies in funding opportunities at local, national and European level. Such moment of change is the right time to forge new joint programs with new and existing partners.
As an Italian aerospace engineering professor working and living in Moscow for the last three years, I had the opportunity to develop my own personal judgment on which pathways seem to be promising for future and innovative collaboration between the two countries. New collaboration pathways could be sought in the commercial domain, in addition to the existing collaborations at government-level between ASI and Roscosmos. Potential collaborations could be sought in areas of mutual interest and benefit, such as the development of low cost electronic propulsion, satellite downstream services and applications, the exploitation of space data, small satellites for commercial purposes, and perhaps the development of very small launchers for micro and nanosatellites. Furthermore, the exploitation of Copernicus imagery, in synergy with the growing expertise of Italian universities and companies in this sector, is an area of high potential growth for collaboration. Both Russia and Italy have interests in these domains and collaboration would allow joining forces in a highly competitive global market landscape. Both countries have an interest in being competitive worldwide, and not just in their national domains – joint ventures such as those initiated in the aeronautics domain could be strategic in this sense.
In this view, the Skolkovo Foundation could play a leading role in being a gateway for commercial collaboration in the space industry with Italy. Several Skolkovo-backed companies could benefit of collaboration with their Italian analogs and find areas of mutual development. The two countries would greatly benefit by increasing their collaboration in joint commercial space programs – in particular if those include programs backed by private funds. Co-funding programs, backed by mixed private and government investors, would be a first of their kind, and would allow merging unique expertise developed in the two countries, potentially being highly impactful in the global markets. New opportunities are possible. It is up to the decision-makers of both countries to take advantage of them.