Aschbacher to Succeed Woerner as Head of ESA

Aschbacher to Succeed Woerner as Head of ESA

Today the ESA Council appointed Josef Aschbacher as the new ESA Director General beginning next summer when Jan Woerner completes his term.  Aschbacher began his career at ESA 30 years ago and currently heads ESA’s earth observation program.

Josef Aschbacher, Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programme and incoming ESA Director General. Credit: ESA

Established in 1975, the European Space Agency (ESA) now has 22 member countries.  France, Germany, and Italy are its largest financial contributors and representatives of those countries have led the agency since 1984. Aschbacher is the first from Austria.

He has a doctoral degree in natural sciences from the University of Innsbruck and joined ESA’s Centre for Earth Observation (ESRIN) near Rome, Italy soon after graduation in 1990. From 1991-1993 he was ESA’s representative in Southeast Asia to the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand. From 1994-2001 he worked at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, then returned to ESA headquarters in Paris, France where he was responsible for ESA’s activities in the European Union’s (EU’s) Copernicus earth observation program. Beginning in 2006 he was head of ESA’s Copernicus Space Office. In 2014, he became the Head of Programme Planning and Coordination at ESRIN and in 2016 was promoted to be Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programme and head of ESRIN.

Last month, NASA launched the EU-ESA-Eumetsat-NASA-NOAA Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean altimetry satellite. Aschbacher played a key role in naming it after Freilich who headed NASA’s earth science program for 12 years, but lost his battle with cancer earlier this year.

ESA and NASA have cooperated closely together over the decades on many projects not only in Earth observation, but space science and human spaceflight. ESA is one of the five space agencies involved in the International Space Station and NASA and ESA recently signed a new agreement to work together on the Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the Moon as part of the Artemis effort to return astronauts to the lunar surface.

The two space agencies also just agreed to cooperate on a Mars Sample Return mission to bring samples of Mars back to Earth using robotic spacecraft.  Just today NASA confirmed it is moving forward with its portion of the program.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, tweeted his congratulations.

Woerner will remain Director General through June 30, 2021.  In a blog post today, he congratulated Aschbacher and joked that while one now may hear cries of “The King is Dead, Long Live the King,” he will remain at the helm of the agency for several more months and “there is still life left in the old King yet!”

ESA Director General Jan Woerner (left) and his successor as of July 1, 2021 Josef Aschbacher (right). December 17, 2020. Credit: ESA

ESA’s members are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Slovenia and Latvia are Associate Members.  It also has an agreement for technical cooperation with Canada, and other cooperative agreements with Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia.

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