Marco Molina, alumnus and star of the Italian space industry, has his “eyes” on protecting Earth
Molina graduated in Aeronautical Engineering in 1994 and was awarded a PhD in Aerospace Engineering in 2007. Today he holds a management role at Leonardo as CTO of the Space Line of Business. His instruments on board orbiting satellites monitor the state of health of our planet and are pushing the limits of technology
One of my roles at Leonardo is developing innovative optical instruments, a field in which our company is a European leader. They are derived from instruments that shaped the history of solar system exploration and have been adapted to monitor the earth
explained Marco Molina, in response to Alumni’s questions.
The Polimi engineer’s role at Leonardo combines management and the development of pioneering technologies, most importantly PRISMA, the hyperspectral instrument that will launch into orbit around the planet at the start of 2019.
ITALIAN EYES AND EARS CONSERVING THE PLANET
“It is a completely Italian project; we are very proud” said Molina. Developed over almost ten years in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI), it will allow experts to observe, monitor and value the earth’s resources, studies which are today conducted by hyperspectral systems on board aeroplanes, with all the limitations that aeroplane mapping entails: limited areas and operational costs.
PRISMA, on the other hand, when in orbit, will film the whole globe, be autonomous and have the diagnostics to survey the land in a similar way to the instruments in use today, but at altitudes 100 times greater than that of aeroplanes. Moreover it will have the advantage of what is termed “revisit time”, i.e. it flies over the same point every 15 days, enabling data comparison from different time periods to assess how the scene is evolving. It aims to significantly benefit the monitoring and control of the state of health of the environment and so has a great number of potential applications: from precision agriculture, to the study of polluting agents on land and at sea, drought, risk of fire and the state of health of forests, through to surveying the chemical composition of the object under observation. It will be possible to know precisely if the roof of a building is made of asbestos or if an area has been polluted by a particular chemical agent.
“I have combined my skills as an aeronautical engineer, specialising in orbits, materials and thermal control, to improve the functioning of the instrument and its features, for example, temperature control or precisely identifying the best set-up (inclination) to be able to point it at the ground and control its temperature, which is influenced by its exposure to the sun. Also while employed as an aeronautical engineer, I unexpectedly worked on the space qualification of electronic microcircuits for radars.” Leonardo has always worked on developing chips for radars for naval use. Molina is part of the project that is aiming to adapt this technology for use in orbit and his team has been working on developing it to make it “qualified for space”: more reliable, adaptable and robust because, in orbit, maintenance cannot be carried out, the instruments must have a long and independent lifecycle and the environmental conditions are extreme. “Basically they are microwave emitters for future space radars; these too will soon be operational and will complement optical technologies like Prisma. In fact, the radars function even in poor visibility, such as at night time or when it’s cloudy, and can precisely observe a variety of phenomena that require timely emergency management: floods, earthquakes, migratory flows – for example, we can see boats in great detail – land subsidence and other micro transformations that can give us an indication of legal and illegal building activity. They are instruments that enable us to monitor phenomena on a large scale and plan interventions more effectively.”
AN INDUSTRY MODEL THAT IS SETTING AN EXAMPLE TO THE WORLD
Molina also works on adapting other state of the art technologies for space systems, such as the use of graphene for satellite cooling and developing space robotics, which, over the past few years, in collaboration with the Politecnico and Prof. Ercoli Finzi (his thesis supervisor), has contributed to the success of the Rosetta mission, and which will also be applied to the Exomars mission in the future. “My work on space robotics, however, focuses primarily on station maintenance and the removal of space debris, which radars can map in detail,” explained Molina, adding, “Today we have an opportunity to make Italy independent throughout the full production chain in the space industry. We are already well positioned internationally; it is an industry that has great strategic value thanks to collaboration with universities, companies and space agencies.” This collaboration is a best practice that allows our companies to be competitive in terms of innovation, even on projects that do not have any immediate commercial return, but that do have strategic value. “Companies are obviously more committed when there are concrete short-term business opportunities, but the intervention of space agencies and institutions, such as the European Commission, is supporting the industry in even its most visionary ideas. At the same time, in our universities, ideas are being hatched that are unique in the world, researchers are trusting us to develop pioneering instruments and, with the support of space agencies, we are able to produce them. Thanks to this continuous interchange, where all the elements in the country are acting in an integrated manner, we are competitive in Europe and across the world: Italian instruments developed by Leonardo, for example, are even being used on NASA’s interplanetary probes!” It would be possible to replicate this model of collaboration and synergy in other industrial production chains, Molina explained, but complicated as well, because it requires joint commitment from universities, industries and institutions, which is difficult to coordinate when innovation incubation times are short. What’s more, because of the complex issues it deals with, the aerospace industry must continually look for collaboration with universities: “Our capacity for innovation, by itself, without the academics, would not be enough. Other industries are more independent and do not feel this same need, perhaps wrongly.”
This symbiotic collaboration between research and technological transfer is pushing the boundaries of knowledge further and further. Today Molina, at Leonardo, is studying and evaluating very long-term projects such as asteroid mining and quantum technologies which would fine-tune the planet’s observation instruments, for example, refocusing blurry images. “These are very visionary projects that require long timeframes, which means the ideas can develop and strengthen over decades. You need great perseverance: one of the projects I worked on during my professional career lasted 18 years. Sometimes even 18 years is not enough. In these cases, you need to have the courage to believe in yourself and have faith in the team that you are sharing this journey with, a team that spans generations and decades. You need to accept that some of the ideas and hypotheses we put forward will be wrong, that some of the technologies we imagine will never work, or sometimes, that valid ideas cannot be developed with the technology we have currently, and will be revisited when the time is right.”
FROM THE DESKS OF THE POLITECNICO TO SPACE
“I often recall this episode from my years at the Poli. It was the dawn of the digital age, there were still very few PCs and the IT rooms were always busy. My work group needed that computing power to develop the model for an aircraft, but the queues were endless and we had very little time left to finish the project. Our aeronautical engineering professor had a unique idea that might save us: work at night time! We waited until the researchers and other students had gone and had the whole campus and its computing power at our disposal, at night: an appealing and disquieting situation!” After graduation, Molina began working internationally, which allowed him to attain his doctorate. “It was the end of the 90s and in Italy the PhD was still under-recognised, but it was a huge innovative strength for companies. I talked about it with Prof. Bernelli and Prof. Ercoli Finzi and we found a formula that allowed me to work in companies on a part time contract, like they do today with the executive PhD at the Politecnico.”
Advice for young people
Don’t believe in people who offer you shortcuts in your career or in life. The commitment and often the effort of pursuing an ambitious objective always pay off. Soft skills will allow you to best take advantage of your technical skills, but it is technical skills that your professionalism is based on, therefore consolidate them through motivation and conviction. And finally, don’t forget that you come from the most important technical university in Italy. Promote its name in Italy but more importantly abroad and continue the dialogue with the faculty from which you graduated: forming networks creates more value than I could ever imagine when I was your age and leaving the Poli
- Marco Molina
- Alumnus Aeronautical Engineering 1994
- Alumnus PhD Aerospace Engineering 2007
- Director of Research and Development at Leonardo's space