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  • Writer's pictureDaciana Sferle

Space Research and Technology with Marius-Ioan Piso, President of ROSA and Chairman of COPUOS

Updated: May 3, 2021

It is a great honour for our blog to host a series of three short interviews with Mr Marius-Ioan Piso, President and CEO of the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) and currently Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

We had a lovely time talking to Mr Piso and learning more about space from our guest. We hope that our readers will enjoy this interview as much as we did.

The following two interviews will be published on a weekly basis, on Saturdays. This first interview will focus on insights into Mr Piso’s impressive career and thoughts about space spinoff technology.

Marius-Ioan Piso is a prominent figure in the space sector with an outstanding career in space education and research in Romania, being the author of 24 patents in inertial and gravity sensors, optical communication and nano-magnetic technology. He is the initiator and Director of the Research, Development and Innovation Program in Romania (Space Technology and Advanced Research - STAR), the founder of the Institute of Space Sciences and the author of numerous scientific papers. He also has a career in management, security and space policies, being President of the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) and the initiator and coordinator of Romania's accession to the European Space Agency (ESA).

- APECS: How did you make the transition from research to management? What satisfaction did you get from both sides?

Immediately after my graduation, I have started to work in the research sector. During the communist period, fresh graduates were not allowed to work in cities. I was employed in the Clinceni town, at one of the Research Institute for Electrical Engineering branches. There, a group of 5-6 researchers worked on gravity, people I had worked with even before I was assigned to do the internship.

In a couple of years, I took a coordination position for research projects, and in 1988 I was appointed head of the laboratory (i.e. the main research unit), becoming the youngest head of a research laboratory in Romania. I felt a great responsibility. I was running a fundamental research program which I financed with money coming from the industry. It was a similar process to what I am doing now.

During the communist regime, all the technology had to be produced locally. I remember we were building some objects (applications) derived from the sensors we were developing for the primary research. It was a very sensitive accelerometer, which was further transformed into a system and sold to the automotive industry. It had a minimal cost, but was produced in large series and made a profit for us to finance our further projects. Somehow, forced by circumstances, we did a complete cycle of research, from basic research to a technical product. We also made an application for geology, a sort of soil tomography. Our products were sold to the automotive industry, the military, and various other companies.

At that time, in Romania, the space field was not well-developed. It was brought back to life for a short time by Dumitru Dorin Prunariu's flight to space, but after that, the dedicated experiments were stopped, only 2-3 research groups remaining at Măgurele, at the Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences, and our research group from Clinceni, which created models of stellar evolution. The group I led made most of the best computers that existed in the country at that time.

Even before the 1990s, we would have liked to start a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). During communism, we were not allowed to publish or go abroad. At that time I was already holding several patents, and because of that I was considered the communist system's property; it was too risky for the Government to allow me to go abroad.

Immediately after the Revolution, on January 7, 1990, together with Dumitru Dorin Prunariu, I went to the newly established Government, and we have initiated the discussion of creating a Romanian Space Agency. That was the beginning of a national space initiative. Later, I have managed to materialise the agreement with ESA.

The transition from research to coordination has been complicated. Because I was considered of unhealthy origins (my parents were intellectuals) by the communist regime, I encountered problems with my PHD admission in 1988. At that time, there were only three positions in my field across the country. A recommendation from the Communist Party conditioned the admission. The PhD coordinators of theoretical physics were located in Iași, Craiova, and Bucharest. In Iasi, professor Ioan Gottlieb evaluated me with a grade of 10 out of 10, but the candidate recommended by the Communist Party was selected. It was only in the '90s, after the fall of communism when I was awarded my PhD. Then I have published a series of papers, and starting from 1996-1997, I focused only on research coordination. Probably when I will retire, I will return to research because I have a lot of unfinished work in the drawer.

I would have felt much better just doing research, but proving efficiency as a manager and out of necessity, the research community directed me towards management.

I'm a little dissatisfied with this path I have followed. Now it is important to offer support for a research position to young people. An attitude as genuine as possible regarding research is critical to guide young people in choosing this field. The research activity will soon be the dominant activity. The COVID-19 pandemics accelerates the transition to the artificial intelligence era. Humans will do what robots cannot do, which is being creative. Robots are just structures to be used.

This era is pushing us to learn new things. Research is necessary for living, it is the basis of competitiveness of all kinds; in all sorts of "wars", research has become an advantage. The human civilisation is only at the beginning of its evolution.

My generation is the last one to know how to make an object from scratch. Now the whole process of creating an object is accessible to order from all over the world. My generation built the foundations, and the next one will refine and perfect them.

The strength of a nation at the moment resides on five components: human resources, enterprise capacity, technology and innovation in the most general way, accretion capacity and natural resources, The last component is not as important as it used to be. These five components trigger military supremacy.

I believe that having my mind trained on a mathematical structure (theoretical physics) helped me to become a good manager, too. It allowed me to be able to see a subjective process objectively.

- APECS: Given that the space industry is booming and becoming more and more present through its applications in our daily lives, what areas have been revolutionised by the technological capabilities developed in the space sector?

Space is the critical infrastructure for scientific research. The space field is similar to the military field because the product development evolves with a purpose that is not commercial in the first instance because the intention is not to sell the product. It is similar in the space sector: if you want to land on Mars, you have a supreme goal, no matter the cost.

Some space technologies are later simplified and can be commercialised, with a spinoff in society. NASA publish every a few years a spinoff catalogue. Many of the things we use today were initially developed for space flight (e.g. Velcro). Artificial intelligence and data mining were also created for the space sector. The space test validation allowed their further development.

Currently, the so-called quantum internet is being implemented in the world. It represents the perfect encryption of two identical generated photons, which generate only two keys (called quantum encryption or quantum key distribution). These systems are not commercial in themselves, but they are the only ones that cannot be broken by hackers. China has invested heavily in this technology; it already has two quantum internet lines that are not destined for the public. ROSA is working on a program with ESA-SAGA (Security And cryptoGrAphic mission) to develop this technology. Compared to fibre optics, space is the ideal medium for quantum communication because the communication transmission is only disturbed by the atmosphere of approximately 10 km thickness.

Another area that defines today's world is big data. Until a few years ago, this was called data mining. It emerged from the needs of the space field too. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in the early 1980s. Hubble made so many discoveries that after two or three years since launching only 7-8 % of the gathered information could be processed, so a decision was made to make the databases public for researchers to do data mining, keeping a few months delay, of course. The Eastern European states were involved in this program only after 1990, after the fall of communism.

There are also Earth observation data. For each pixel spatial resolution of the picture frame obtained, we know some very clear spectral notions to get relevant information over an area. We work a lot with radar in space. Radar adds a number of other dimensions to Earth observation data. Every day terabytes of information are accumulated within the Copernicus system. The Collaborative Ground Segment Group of the Copernicus program is like a mirror of Copernicus satellites' databases, also comprising the data procured by the satellites above Romania and the adjacent areas to narrow the search base. The Copernicus system is very reliable.

According to the World Economic Forum, the space business sector will reach approximately $ 470 billion worldwide (by 2020). That means $ 60-70 per capita is spent annually on space, an average family of four spends $ 250 per year on space, and this amount is increasing.

Note: This is a translation from the original Romanian language interview.

In the second interview with Mr Piso, we will discuss space policies.

We will be back on the 8th of May, stay tuned!

Marius-Ioan Piso, ROSA President

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