Conquering the solar system with the ERC EXTREMA project

Francesco Topputo’s research into the development of CubeSat nanosatellites wins €2 million of EU funding

The EXTREMA - Engineering Extremely Rare Events in Astrodynamics for Deep-Space Missions in Autonomy - project by Francesco Topputo, researcher from our Department of Aerospace Science and Technology, has been awarded a €2 million ERC Consolidator Grant. This prestigious reward is presented by the European Union to excellent researchers in the process of consolidating their scientific independence with the aim of driving frontier research.

EXTREMA involves the creation of “self-driving interplanetary CubeSats

Until now the use of CubeSats to explore the solar system has remained something of a taboo: remotely controlling them from Earth is too expensive and negates the advantages of miniaturisation. EXTREMA seeks to overcome this obstacle

It is a unique project in the world which raises lots of challenges: the CubeSat nanosatellites will have to be able to independently determine their own position by observing celestial bodies but also travel along the correct course using miniaturised engines. For this EXTREMA will integrate elements of artificial intelligence and take advantage of a highly delicate celestial mechanism to go into orbit around the planets: gravitational pull.

The use of this technology brings many benefits: universities, research centres and businesses will be able to access deep space at low cost, combining the miniaturisation of satellites with the reduced costs of operations. This will result in the potential proliferation of space missions and a better understanding of our solar system.

The complexity of the proposed technology will require a team of international researchers that will be led by Prof. Topputo.

For over 50 years robotic exploration of the solar system has taken place using probes remotely controlled from the Earth. During their journey to planets, asteroids or comets, space shuttles are in frequent contact with space stations as they await instructions. Here, the teams of engineers have the goal of reconstructing the position of the satellites and creating a “flight plan” so they arrive at their destination in the established timeframes and ways. This approach requires significant resources because the journey in space can last months or years.

In recent times the miniaturisation of electronics has enabled the creation and spread of nanosatellites: miniaturised systems able to carry out scientific measurements in the same way as their “ancestors” while weighing hundreds of kilograms less. The advantage of CubeSats lies in their low development cost and speed of production. CubeSats have been adopted by NASA, ESA and JAXA, the three biggest space agencies in the world, for scientific missions in the Earth’s orbit.

I have spent many years working to firm up my idea. I am proud to lead an international team that will work at the frontier of space research

ERC projects are assessed according to the excellence of the research proposal and the CV of the proponent (Principal Investigator). To give an idea of how difficult it is to obtain an ERC Consolidator Grant, in 2019 over 2453 applications were made in all disciplines but only 12% were awarded funding. The European Research Council (ERC) awarded €600 million of “Consolidator Grants” in the most recent competition.

As part of the H2020 programme, Politecnico di Milano was awarded 9 ERC Consolidator Grants worth a total of approximately €17.015.380. Our university leads the way in terms of H2020 funds received, equal to €138.727.512 euro, and number of projects funded, a total of 319.