The gentle star: the interview with Amalia Ercoli-Finzi

From our spring 2017 MAP #1 archive: an exchange of ideas with the Honorary Professor of the Politecnico on space, imagination and future generations

We are in the B12 building of the Politecnico, in the heart of the Bovisa campus. I am meeting Professor Amalia Ercoli Finzi on the second floor. The building is a maze: in fact I got lost, she had to guide me there with her mobile phone, as if I were a probe that had gone off course. She is a petite lady with an elegant, kind and curious manner. She is also one of Italy’s leading scientists. And yet, one of the first topics we address is fantasy.

Amalia Ercoli Finzi

We work with the imagination to be able to understand what we want to do - she begins - the first step is to imagine this different world on which we want to go, imagine a galaxy so far away that we can say that we are close to the Big Bang. This is not an imagination for its own sake, which fantasizes about things that are impossible to achieve; I'm talking about a reasoned fantasy that serves to identify goals and aspirations. After which, we need to find the tools to put it into practice”.

How did you imagine Carousel, the system you assembled on Rosetta? I ask, and she smiles as her eyes light up with enthusiasm. "We had to deposit the samples taken from the comet into a series of ovens and we had two options: either we moved the sample or we moved the ovens. Moving the sample meant moving the drill, but the drill was attached to the Lander. Turning the whole Lander is a very complicated business. So, we worked on fantasy. The solution was to hold the drill still and make the ovens rotate under it. This way when the drill found the right oven, the sample was deposited. We performed these rotation operations with errors of tenths of a minute of arc. It was very satisfying".

missione rosetta
Credits: Il Post

Yet it is impossible to imagine all possible scenarios. “True. We didn't think about putting a deployment sensor on the sampling tube. Our drill is fitted with a tube that is ejected and inserted inside the cavity to collect the material. I did endless tests in the laboratory and can almost hear the "click" it makes when it comes out. It always worked in all the tests and we trusted it, instead we should have added a sensor that told us if it had deployed correctly or not. The other thing we didn't put in was a ground contact sensor. We do not know exactly when the contact takes place: we can reconstruct it through the forces that are exerted, especially through the dynamics, because by imposing a rotation and transaction speed, if these vary it is clear that contact with the ground has occurred. But having a sensor would have been good".

Next time there will be a sensor. By the way, what did Rosetta teach us, what will we need for the next times? "Landing on an asteroid also serves to demonstrate something important: with a very small, really very small propeller, capable of transmitting a fraction of a centimetre per second of speed, it is possible to deflect the asteroid! This could protect us from a possible impact: if we act early enough, let's say twenty years before the expected impact with the Earth, it is enough to change its course. Because it has travelled a lot in twenty years, and the drift takes it away from our planet".

amalia ercoli finzi
Credits: La Repubblica

I am heartened to know that if we were on a collision course with an asteroid we would not have to send Bruce Willis onto it, but I don't know if I should tell the Professor. Instead, I ask her what the fundamental components for a mission in space are. "First the ideas, second the people who bring the ideas to life, third the money. That is: the pure contribution of the brain, the contribution of human capacity and then the money to put everything into practice. And I confess that on the economic question I envy the Chinese a little, who decide one thing and do it. We are doing well in Europe, we are good, but we are a little bit quarrelsome and a little nationalist. I believe in Europe, I have always believed in it, also because I was there when the Treaties of Rome were signed. I recently told the European Community that we scientists had thought of a Europe of collaboration, a Europe in which the strongest nation helps the others. That was the concept:the dissemination of knowledge based on collaboration. There is no way like working together to teach others and learn ourselves. Because you learn a lot even from ignorance. Now in Europe things are not quite like that".

Learning from ignorance? "You wouldn’t believe how many things I have learned from the mistakes of my students! Thanks to them, I saw sides of the same topic that I had never tackled from that perspective brought to light. I always say that, there are two cases behind a great invention: either you know everything, and therefore you get there because you have this deep-rooted knowledge, or you don't know anything about it and you throw yourself into it".

So, are we going to Mars? It's a bit of a forbidden dream, right? “Yes. More than half of the missions to Mars, two thirds I believe, have failed. Mars is difficult to reach (so much so that, when they reach it, then they remain there), but it is the only possibility we have to explore a planet where there has been life and where we could bring life back. It can be done.

This article was published in MAP , the magazine of the Alumni of the Politecnico di Milano. Browse through the magazine and discover what’s inside and, if you want, support us.

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