The next seven decades are also playing "up there". Already, the projects outside our Earth have: return to our natural satellite in 2024, missions inhabited by Mars until 2030, commissioning Ariane 6 in 2020 for more and more launches … Pioneer in the subject, our The country is very well positioned for this conquest of the new frontier. The president of CNES, Jean-Yves Le Gall, reveals its contours for us.
Today, more surely than in the 1960s, can we speak of the dawn of a new frontier in space?
Jean-Yves Le Gall: The technologies made tremendous progress. Now we can make room for a lot less money than before. In fact, there are now 60 space agencies around the world. Ten years ago, it was only a dozen. Yesterday, it took hundreds of millions of euros to launch satellites. Today, we are in the hundreds of thousands of euros, or less, for micro satellites. To launch one since your garden is not for tomorrow, but the space is democratized, that's for sure. This is the reason why we are entering a "chapter 2" of space conquest.
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Obviously, we see much more for humanity, but are not there also disadvantages to this democratization of space?
There are always risks. The first is that people, not necessarily well intentioned, are busy casting satellites or … other "things." And as such, we are very attentive to the spread of this technology. On the other hand, with the proliferation of launches, there is the question of the occupation of space. We do not do anything nowhere. This should be strictly framed. As this activity develops, it is necessary to implement regulations that did not exist before.
About space debris, what are the real numbers and is it a worrying danger? ?
It all depends on the size of the debris. There are currently in orbit over our heads, 30,000 objects of 10cm or more, including 1,400 active satellites. To which must be added 750,000 objects of 1cm or more, and 135 million objects of 1mm or more. This is a real problem. Because the space must remain clean. France has been a pioneer in this area with the law of space operations, which forces the actors who launch satellites and rockets not to pollute the space. So do not create debris, especially those on the upper floors of the rockets. Now, when they no longer need to operate, we "desorb" the satellites. We must be very careful that in the future all the small satellites that will be launched have a plan so that, at the end of their "life", they do not become debris. And they pose real problems.
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With the arrival of the 5G, connecting objects continuously through the global internet, the needs of the satellites will be exponential. Do you have numbers?
There will be more and more projects, but not necessarily, an increase in launches. Because, as the number of satellites increases, their mass decreases. There will be more and more, but they will become smaller and smaller. Space X has just launched a rocket with 60 nano satellites. We, ourselves, with Vega, will do the same with dozens of microsatellites.
Are the mineral resources extracted from the asteroids a medium-term project, 10 to 20 years, or is it still fantasy?
It is medium and long term. For a very simple reason, the asteroids we are talking about here are very distant: between Mars and Jupiter. Where we've never really been. We have a mission with Japan to bring back a sample of Phobos, a Moon from Mars. I'm talking about bringing back 10g of ore and it's a $ 500 million project. This gives you an idea of the cost per gram … This is a real topic of interest, but it is not for tomorrow.
France has launched a partnership with China to bring French equipment to the moon. Is this the beginning of a collaboration that could go as far as sending a French astronaut to a Chinese mission? We think of Thomas Pesquet, of course …
France is by far the country of the world with the greatest international cooperation. We work with the United States, India, China, Japan, Russia and some emerging powers. Last year, together with China and other countries, we launched a satellite for oceanographic studies. In two years, another for the observation of bursts of gamma rays, born of star explosions. We also do space medicine with the Chinese, and all of this is going very well. We proposed to embark on his next mission on the other side of the moon, 25 kilos of "French" experiences. What is nothing! From there, to consider a mission on the Moon with a French astronaut, I want to tell you: why not? CNES has a real tradition of piloting astronauts, especially with its specialized laboratory in Toulouse, which Thomas Pesquet took advantage of. At first, if China one day open its space station for a non-Chinese astronaut, I think the French would be well placed to apply.
Would this be the first time that French material would land on the moon?
In the early 1970s, French laser reflectors were used by Soviet lunar probes, but they were "passive" instruments. In the mission with China, will be the equipment at the forefront of technology and fully active.
If France is not yet on the moon, it is already on Mars with the seismograph SEIS, which has just detected its first tectonic tremor!
Yes, and we are very proud of this cooperation. In 2012, we put the two main instruments of NASA's Curiosity rover and "put the lid" on Insight, built as a whole around our seismograph, the SIX. Launched on May 5, 2018, it landed on Mars on November 26. And, in fact, he recently revealed the first earthquake on Mars. It is an absolutely extraordinary experience that will allow us to better understand the structure of the planet.
A mission inhabited on Mars will not be until at least the 2030s
The Moon is becoming very attractive and plans to return are increasing. There is talk of the installation of bases, a prelude to manned trips to Mars. What do you think?
There is an effervescence of projects. Sometimes used by private companies. Two years ago, Elon Musk revealed his plans for the Martian bases. With totally unrealistic calendars. A mission inhabited on Mars will not be before at least the decade of 2030. The biggest problem of sending men to Mars is … precisely men. Because you have to spend two years in space, in zero gravity, and today, you do not know how to do that. In addition, there is the American desire to return to the moon in the context of a rivalry with China, and to represent a woman, they insist a lot on that in four or five years. This does not seem irrational to me. Even viable. Keep sending robots to Mars every 26 months when a launch window is also possible. But for men, I do not see it before the 2030s.
As you see these private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who dispute the rules of space. As an innovative and innovative breathing for everyone. Or as ambitious people who sometimes take too much risk?
I was doubtful at a time because his methods of communication are not those of a state enterprise. When Arianespace announces that we are going to do 10 shots in Kourou next year, if we make 9 shots, it will be perceived as a disaster. Space X can say 50, only 20, and everyone will find it great. When Elon Musk announced his installation plan on Mars three years ago, we saw some great computer generated images, but it was more of a novel than a realistic calendar. But everyone wanted to believe! He promises 100 and finally does 10. That being said, it is clear today that the "launchers" part of Space X works. It's a fact. The rest, we're still waiting for this. It should also be known that in the global space budget, at the global level, Space X represents only a few%. Space is still a matter of traditional actors.
He even innovated, especially with reusable launchers.
That's right, he's getting that right bet. But we did not expect SpaceX to think about it either. We are developing the Prometheus engine, which will be a reusable engine and launcher demonstrators, also reusable. Let's see if this track is really promising in economic terms. Anyway, we are armed to respond.
Going to space will remain, again for a while, very difficult
Do you believe in the development of space tourism that we have promised for so long and that never comes?
Some rich tourists will fly. Probably. The cost of the ticket to spend three minutes at zero gravity is 200 to 300 thousand dollars. So it is not accessible at all. And I do not think the price can really fall. Going to space will remain, again for a while, very difficult. We can not reduce costs because we increase the level of risk. And this is not possible. Let's fly some millionaires, let's talk about space and it will be good for the conquest of space. But I do not expect a mass of "space tourism", no.
The CNES is developing a "balloon" activity, what is it for?
It's an important department. A balloon rises to an altitude of 40 or 50 km, that is, almost in space, which allows to test a certain number of scientific instruments. Because it's a lot cheaper than sending a satellite, of course. Only a fraction of the cost. Today, almost all telescopes are first tested under the balloons before they are sent into space. We have a launch center in France for modest prices, and also in Australia and Canada, for very large balloons. It's very spectacular.
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