Interview with Head of ESRIN

Volker Liebig

Volker Liebig has been the Head of ESRIN and the Director of Earth Observation since October 2004. Born in Lűbbecke, Germany, he grew up in the city of Munich and obtained a doctorate in geophyscis at the University of Munich.

Prior to joining ESA, Dr Liebig worked for a number of years in the German space industry before joining the German Space Agency, DLR, where he became Programme Director of the German Space Programme. In an interview for the ESRIN website Dr Liebig discussed his joint role as Head of ESRIN and Director of Earth Observation.

How important is the work being done at ESRIN for the Agency?

The two main products of ESRIN are Earth Observation and information systems, two very important sectors for the Agency. Without information systems the Agency would not be able to function while the Earth Observation ground segment management, carried out at ESRIN, is a vital part of ESA’s Earth Observation programme. The impact of their work goes far beyond Europe as ESRIN supplies satellite data to organisations and research institutions around the world.

It is also important for ESA to have a presence in Italy as this country is the Agency’s third biggest contributor.


Do you think ESRIN’s role will change in the near future?

Developments in space change very quickly and to keep abreast the Agency, including of course ESRIN, has to change with them. Within Earth Observation in the future there will be a move away from large satellites such as Envisat to smaller, more dedicated satellites.

GMES, the joint ESA/European Commission venture for global monitoring for environment and security, is already bringing about changes at ESRIN. In preparation for GMES we are working on initial operations services to support the implementation of European policies.

When GMES becomes operational, hopefully in 2010 to 2011, it will become the second operational element in the Earth Observation programme after meteorology. Implementing GMES will be an exciting challenge for ESA, and particularly ESRIN.

How do you see your job as Head of ESRIN and what would you like to achieve?

I take my job as Head of this establishment very seriously, as ensuring safety and security at ESRIN is an important responsibility.

I believe ESRIN will flourish and develop, as it is the only ESA site where space restrictions do not preclude further expansion. However, it is important to remember that it is not the number of activities but the quality that counts.

In some ways responsibility for a key ESA establishment and an important ESA Directorate are very different roles, does this create difficulties?

Not really, the main product of ESRIN is the management of the Earth Observation ground segment. Earth Observation is also the biggest customer of information technology, so my two jobs fit well together.

Information systems, as well as other important activities being carried out at ESRIN, such as the Vega programme and telecommunications, report directly to their own directorates. My responsibility is to ensure they have the best environment in which to carry out their work.

Post-disaster satellite map of Sri Lanka

Can you tell us why Earth Observation satellites, and the data they provide, are so important?

Today satellite data are an indispensable tool in many diverse areas. It is now unthinkable to imagine scientists, environmentalists or geographers carrying out their work without space data.

Space data also play an important role in disaster management. The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, of which ESA is a founder member, has been activated more than 80 times since it became operational in 2000. Requests for its services were particularly high during the December 2004 Tsunami disaster.

Do you think EO satellites will have new roles to play in the future?

Earth Observation is moving more into operations, particularly with the advent of GMES. This means environmental satellites will be able to supply fully operational services. As a result, satellite data will become a vital tool in many more areas than at present, particularly for civil security.

In the future, satellite data will become part of everyone’s daily life, not just scientists. One application, for example, that is already available is to check on the internet before going to the beach to see the day’s UV and ozone levels.

What are the advantages for ESRIN of being in Italy?

As a European agency it is important for ESA to have ‘flags’ in different European countries to strengthen its links with Member States. The Agency’s presence ensures a flow of technology and knowledge back to the host country in return for its support.

ESRIN’s location close to Rome and in the region of Lazio brings many advantages and has led to ESRIN being the most cost-effective of all the ESA establishments. Many research centres are based in the Lazio region, some just a few kilometres away, and Rome is home to three universities. This allows us to set up an infrastructure to facilitate work on common projects as well as a two-way flow of information.

Elv SpA, the Vega prime contractor and Avio SpA are located in the nearby town of Colleferro and we also have a close interchange with the Italian Space Agency ASI, which is based in Rome.

All in all, there are many good reasons for our presence here, not the least of which, speaking personally, is the pleasure of working in this fascinating and lovely country.

Last update: 8 July 2010

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