The Third Exploratory Round Table Conference or ERTC, on the topic of “Space-Based Research”, took place in Shanghai from 1 to 3 November 2012 under the auspices of the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies. The event is the third of a new series of annual conferences which are intended to provide a joint platform for scientists of both Max Planck Society (MPG) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) together with international leading scientists to discuss and evaluate newly emerging and rapidly evolving fields of research. The two supporting organisations thus create visions and seeds towards the establishments of topical areas at the leading edge of science. As such, the ERTC adds a novel instrument to ongoing processes of priority-setting in the further development of the research portfolio of both organisations.
The scientific opportunities to enhance human knowledge through space-based research have never been more promising than today.
The use of space techniques continues to play a key role in the advance of astrophysics and astronomy by providing high resolution access to the entire electromagnetic spectrum from radio to high energy gamma rays. In the future, gravitational wave detectors operated from space could give researchers a look at the earliest Universe. Modern satellites will help to solve the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. Closer to home, space probes, possibly equipped with landers and rovers, could teach us more about the Solar System's history and evolution.
Earth-observing satellites with high-resolution instruments will improve our ability to understand and respond to climate change, and the biosphere could be observed in much greater detail. New satellite spectrometers will allow to monitor air quality on regional down to urban scales and to assess the impact of volcanoes on aviation and atmospheric chemistry. The combination of novel active and passive instruments will yield unprecedented details on cloud and aerosol properties, which currently constitute the largest source of uncertainties in our understanding and prediction of climate change. Revolutionary satellite techniques, like tagging animals with radio receivers and then tracking them from radio telescopes mounted in space, would generate powerful impact. Installing a global observation system that provides a direct link to life on the planet envisions exploiting mass animal behavior as a sensor, for example to predict catastrophes like earthquakes or tsunamis.
Additionally, space offers unique experimental conditions and a wide range of opportunities to explore the foundations of modern physics with accuracy far beyond that of ground-based investigations. Experiments under microgravity conditions in space stations or space probes form a unique window to the study of physical, but also of biological systems like humans, plants or microbes. The lack of gravity often results in reduced complexity and could reveal entirely new and unexpected phenomena.
This ERTC aims for a critical review of the presently existing ideas, strategies and aspirations of space-based research. CAS through its Innovation 2020 program is boosting the Chinese scientific space missions during the next decade. This development is matched by the long term strategy of MPG hosting a large fraction of Germany’s space science in its ranks. The results of the ERTC will serve as a basis for further consideration by CAS and MPG.