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Italy has sights - and budget - set firmly on the cosmos

As a public body, the Italian space agency (ASI) might have expected lean times ahead as governments across Europe set austerity budgets. However, at the Farnborough air show, Rome underscored its determination to build on the momentum driving its space programme, which is enjoying a high profile as a key partner to NASA.

When Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off in November for STS-133 - the next-to-last scheduled Shuttle flight before the fleet is retired - it will deliver and install at the International Space Station a NASA-owned but Italian-designed multipurpose logistics module, Raffaello.

Critically, Raffaello will be stuffed with spare parts to help see the station through a post-Shuttle delivery crunch. For its efforts, ASI - which since previous visits by Raffaello to the ISS has paid for module modifications including micrometeroid protection - has been guaranteed a seat on NASA's next crew transport system and six ISS mission opportunities for Italian astronauts.

But at Farnborough, Italian universities and research minister Mariastella Gelmini confirmed that Italy is looking far beyond its Raffaello success by unveiling a 10-year strategic plan that, if formally approved in late September, will count space as a strategic national sector, identified as a contributor to economic development. Thus ASI's own 10-year, €7 billion ($8.8 billion) development plan looks set to survive the current budget debate largely intact.

At Farnborough, Gelmini and ASI president Enrico Saggese met NASA administrator Charles Bolden to discuss new opportunities for flying Italian instruments on NASA scientific missions, as well as future Italian ISS participation. Gelmini also signed an agreement on research and development with her British opposite number, David Willetts, whose UK government brief also includes space.

And, if there were any doubts remaining that Italy intends to sustain its drive in space, Gelmini confirms that Italy's CIRA aerospace research centre in Capua, near Naples, will be merged with ASI - protecting it from proposed cuts to research funding.

KEY PROJECTS

ASI is assisting with a possible manned mission to Mars via the Mars Sample Return and two-mission ExoMars programmes. It will supply components for a rover to be deployed in 2018, under the management of mission control at ASI's Advanced Logistics Technology Engineering operation.

Italy should have two of its own astronauts in space early next year. Roberto Vittori will be on board the 134th and final Shuttle mission, which has been moved from October to February 2011, while Paolo Nespoli will join the seven-month Soyuz mission launching in December. They stand alongside Luca Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti, the two Italians selected last year among six new recruits to the European Space Agency's astronaut corps. They are in basic training and could be in space by 2015. Cristoforetti, an Italian air force fighter pilot, is Italy's first, and ESA's second, female astronaut.

International programmes in which ASI participates include NASA's Glast gamma-ray astronomy mission, now renamed Fermi, and Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system.

ASI is paying particular attention to Earth observation programmes. Along with the Italian defence ministry and Thales Alenia Space, the agency is nearing completion of the Cosmo-SkyMed dual-use Earth observation satellite constellation, whose fourth and final X-band SAR radar satellite will be launched in October.

In Europe, the four Cosmo-SkyMed satellites combine with two French Pleiades optical satellites to form the Orfeo Earth observation system, for both civilian and military use. Cosmo-SkyMed is also part of the Italian-Argentinian satellite system for emergency management, together with two Argentinian L-band SAR satellites.

And, says Saggese: "We are already working on a second-generation constellation satellite to be launched in 2014-15." The relevant contract is to be awarded this year.

He adds that ASI also contributes to the ESA GMES programme based on the Sentinel 1 C-band SAR satellite, and is testing a P-band radar on board an airborne platform for under-foliage and underground observation to support agriculture and archaeology. ASI also plans future co-operation with Russia's Roscosmos space agency on the Millimetron super telescope, providing the spectrometer for the 12m (39ft)-diameter space telescope.

ASI is also seeking an international partner for Prisma, an electro-optical technology demonstrator programme intended to integrate a hyperspectral sensor and middle-resolution panchromatic camera for launch is in 2011 on board the ASI- and ESA-designed Vega rocket.

Another ASI programme is the Italian-French new generation Ku/Ka-band Athena Fidus military communication satellite, which follows on from the Sicral programme, which developed Italy's first military satellite.

AND LIFT-OFF

ASI is leading Europe's small satellite launcher programme through development of the Vega rocket. Vega is intended the complement the larger Ariane launcher and will position satellites up to 1,500kg (3,300lb)in low orbit. Vega is expected to make its maiden flight in the first half of 2011, says Saggese, to launch Italy's LARES (Laser Relativity Satellite) scientific spacecraft.

Saggese says: "We continue our efforts to improve Vega's performance by about 30%, without significant impacts on the price of the launch service, by employing a third stage based on the new oxygen-methane MIRA thrusters."

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