Ana Laverón is Professor of Space Vehicles at ETSIAE and Director of E-USOC.
“The International Space Station is a fundamental element for research into the effects of microgravity and space radiation on people, living organisms and space systems, so I think it will continue to operate for a lot longer. “
Since 2006 you have been directing E-USOC, the Spanish User Support and Operations Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA). Where has your research been directed over the years? What projects are you currently working on?
We have several lines of research in the group. One is very well established, on the stability of free fluid interfaces, where we have recently been able to do an experiment in a parabolic flight campaign to study how to orient the liquid / gas interface by applying vibrations. We are currently analysing the results. In addition, in this same line of research, we are collaborating with other European groups to study various instabilities in the dynamics of fluid surfaces subjected to vibrations. Another line of research we have been working on in recent years is the control of satellite attitude by fuzzy logic, which is a type of control that is not yet used in space missions, but which is used for controlling simple devices on the ground. A third important line of research focuses on the study of the application of phase change materials in microgravity conditions for the thermal control of satellites. Recently, we did some experiments in a parabolic flight campaign in this area, and we are now analysing the results and studying more complex configurations.
In addition to the above, in the last 10 years we have conducted 13 experiments on fluid physics and metal alloy solidification on the International Space Station. Of these, seven have been carried out in collaboration with NASA, within its Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) laboratory; the rest have been carried out in ESA laboratories in Columbus (Ohio, USA).
Spanish research in the aerospace field continues to contribute a great deal to international projects, despite the lack of resources for R&D&I…
The standard of professionals and researchers in the aerospace field is very high in Spain, and, thanks to this, we have an excellent reputation that allows us to continue working on international projects.
Particularly in the area of Space, we are fortunate enough to be able to collaborate with many international groups through the European Space Agency. The existence of ESA and Spain’s participation in its programmes opens up enormous possibilities for collaboration. However, we need to increase investment into these programmes, as there is a lot of potential that is not being exploited.
In addition, we need to increase investment in research through the National Plan, which has suffered brutal cuts since the beginning of the crisis. Our scientific groups are at a clear disadvantage compared to the level of resources that our European colleagues have. So far, an enormous effort has been made to keep the lines of research active, but the results will not be maintained if the situation is not reversed.
Spain is becoming increasingly important in the space sector. Do you think we will need to create a Spanish Space Agency in the future?
Without a doubt. Spain carries enough weight in the European space sector to make it essential that a Spanish Space Agency be created to defend the interests of the Spanish sector, versus the interests of the countries that do have a Space Agency. We need to have clear and sustained policies over time, and to achieve that we need an organisation of this type.
We have been hearing for some time that it is going to be created, but it never actually happens. And it is becoming increasingly necessary, because this is a sector that is clearly expanding.
The School of Aeronautical and Space Engineering (Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingeniería Aeronáutica y del Espacio, ETSIAE) is one of the top university centres for training aerospace engineers in Europe, and is widely known in a sector that increasingly demands this profile. What is the difference between an aerospace engineer trained at ETSIAE and one trained at other universities?
At ETSIAE there has always been greater academic and training rigour in the fundamentals compared to most other European universities in the sector. This greater theoretical rigour means that engineers leaving ETSIAE are better able to face new problems with guarantees of success. Moreover, this mastery of the fundamentals also allows greater innovation.
In 2009, you became the first woman to hold a Chair at ETSIAE, which was a real accomplishment. Gender imbalance is sadly common, especially in engineering careers. Have you seen the number of female students in your classrooms grow in recent years? What advice would you give to young women who want to begin these types of studies?
Yes, from the time I started out at the school up to the present day, the number of female students has increased, but I think the increase is much less than it should have been. The percentage of female students in the school is in the order of 20%, which is clearly not enough, because it indicates that a large amount of female talent is being lost.
I encourage young women who are interested in this area not to be influenced by the statistics and to do what they really like. They are as capable as their peers of achieving success in engineering.
However, I believe that it is necessary to convey a message of equality from the very beginning of school education, and an enormous effort must be made to put an end to sexist messages in advertising. Without that, change will be very difficult.
You have also successfully led several investigations and experiments for the International Space Station, which is the greatest example of international cooperation in the area of Space, and which for the time being will continue to operate until 2024. What do you think its future will be after that date? How could its hypothetical disappearance affect aerospace science?
The lifespan of the International Space Station has been extended many times over the years, which means that the required maintenance to remain operational has been carried out. This maintenance has included significant changes to the Station.
I believe that, today, the Station is a fundamental element for research into the effects of microgravity and space radiation on people, living organisms and space systems, so I think it will continue to operate for a lot longer. At some point the Station will no longer be used as a space science laboratory, but I hope that will be because another system capable of replacing it has been identified. I am convinced that the Station will not be dismantled until a system capable of meeting the R&D&I needs it offers has been put in place.