16.10.23 - Since Jean-Paul Kneib arrived in 2012, he has played an integral role in many of EPFL’s astronomy and space activities. He is currently the academic director of the EPFL Space Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Late on July 20, 1969 in France, two-year-old Jean-Paul Kneib was awoken by his parents to watch the moon landing. Whether he truly remembers the event or has just been told about it enough times, it created a strong memory and set him on a course to become an astrophysicist and the academic director of the EPFL Space Center.
“Let’s do something extraordinary!”
To start his long career in space, Kneib received his master’s in Space Technology from the Institut Supérieur de l'Aéronautique et de l'Espace (ISAE) in Toulouse, followed by a PhD in Astrophysics from the Université of Toulouse.
“I thought space is so mysterious, let’s do something extraordinary!” he says. “I’m a person who likes observing things that you don’t understand and then I want to resolve it.”
After completing his PhD in less than three years, he moved around, first joining the European Southern Observatory in Chile, then the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge University for a Postdoctoral Fellowship. He was then hired at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Toulouse, France. He spent two years as a visiting professor at CalTech in the US before going back to Marseille in France where he led a cosmology research group at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille.
In 2012, he joined EPFL with an ERC Advanced Grant to shed new light and understanding on the “dark elements” of the universe. In 2016 he became full professor and took the leadership of the Laboratory of Astrophysics (LASTRO), and in 2017, he was offered the chance to lead and develop the EPFL Space Center (eSpace).
“At first, I didn’t know exactly on which direction to focus, but students are really thrilled and motivated when it comes to space, so I could see a lot of potential for development in this very active domain”, he says.
Along with supporting and advising the student groups working on space, he also manages eSpace’s many research projects on topics such as lunar exploration and space sustainability. He leads efforts for funding opportunities and helps connect space research across the EPFL campus. He also does scientific outreach, notably co-curating the 2022-23 Cosmos Archeology exhibition at EPFL Pavilions with Sarah Kenderdine of the Laboratory for Experimental Museology (EM+). The exhibition included the video “Archeology of Light”that used astronomical data Kneib collected over the last decade.
“It was a new challenge for me,” he explains. “If it’s too easy, there’s no point.”
There’s no planet B
Decades of launches and the recent commercialisation of space has led to congested orbits, increasing the risk of satellite and space debris collisions. This will only get worse as more than 50,000 satellites are planned to be launched in the next decade, putting at risk the capacity of Earth orbit to safely accommodate new objects.
Kneib has been involved in these challenges for quite a while. “Sustainability in space is a major issue that should be a concern of everyone on Earth as our human society is critically dependent on measurements, information, and communication from space,” he says. “As an astrophysicist, you know that there is only one habitable place in the solar system - the Earth. There’s no planet B. And if you don’t take your share of responsibility, nothing will change.”
In 2018, Kneib supported the creation of the start-up ClearSpace from a project idea that began at EPFL in 2012. ClearSpace was selected by ESA to conduct a space debris removal mission in 2026, where it will rendezvous, capture and take down for reentry the upper part of a VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) from Europe's Vega launcher.
In 2021, a consortium led by the World Economic Forum chose eSpace to host the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR), a voluntary rating system developed to incentivize sustainable practices by space operators. A number of space operators have engaged in this initiative as supporting members and beta-testers, and the first official rating was issued in 2022. In June 2023, SSR spun off from eSpace to become an independent nonprofit association, of which Kneib is the President.
The next frontier in astrophysics
Kneib is also responsible for leading the contribution from Switzerland to the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), an international project building two giant radio telescope sites in Australia and South Africa that will give humanity new information on the origins of the universe and possibly even signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system.
He became interested in this project back in 1998, when the first discussions about developing a giant radio telescope were taking place. As the SKA project matured from an idea to a project, Kneib renewed his interest and in 2016, he became the lead Swiss Scientist of the SKA and gathered a group of Swiss scientists to push for Switzerland’s participation. In 2022, Switzerland officially joined the SKA under Prof. Kneib’s leadership, and the technical and scientific activities are now organized through the SKACH consortium of nine Swiss institutions.
“Radio astronomy is one of the next frontiers in the field of astronomy and astrophysics as the increasing power of computers is making it possible to digest the hundreds of PetaBytes of data that will be produced by SKA.”
Consolidating space at EPFL
In 2023, the EPFL Space Center was restructured and now comprises two units: eSpace, which is responsible for aspects of education and research, and Space Innovation, which aims to develop innovative solutions and products in the space domain through its active network of Swiss industries, research and technology organizations, and academic partners.
For Prof. Kneib, it’s yet another challenge that he relishes taking on, and he’s excited to continue making the EPFL Space Center an asset to the student community, the research community, and for industry across Switzerland.
“As a university you want to raise talents and work on transformative projects. Following students, helping them with their projects and finding them jobs is very important to me,” he says. “This means our projects need to be meaningful and ambitious.”