Former NASA science director is joining ETH Zurich

30 May 2023 | Network Updates | Update from ETH Zurich
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

From 2016 to 2022, Thomas Zurbuchen was responsible for research at NASA, the US space agency. From August this year, he will become director of ETH Zurich Space. This initiative aims to promote space research and teaching at ETH and to expand and strengthen cooperation with the space industry.

Considered to be one of the most influential scientific leaders in the world, Thomas Zurbuchen has had a decisive influence in space science. After more than 20 years in the USA, he returns to his home country. From August, he will lead ETH Zurich Space as a Professor of Space Science and Technology.

“We founded ETH Zurich Space in October 2022 to expand space research and teaching at ETH and to strengthen cooperation with partners from science, industry, and space agencies such as ESA and NASA. With his knowledge and global network, Thomas Zurbuchen is the perfect leader for this initiative," explains Vanessa Wood, vice president for knowledge transfer and corporate relations. Together with her team and in collaboration with the Department of Earth Sciences, she was responsible for Thomas Zurbuchen's decision to join ETH Zurich.

Moon robots, marsquakes and Earth-​like exoplanets

There is already a lot of research at ETH Zurich with a connection to space. ETH researchers are developing robots for use on the moon, searching for Earth-​like exoplanets, and studying quakes on Mars. Other ETH scientists are developing technology for the space industry and sensors to gather data from space or use space data for climate and security research. Dozens of ETH Zurich students participate in building space rockets with the ARIS student association, and more than twenty ETH spin-​offs have a direct connection to the space sector.

“Space research at ETH Zurich is conducted at an exceedingly high-​level. I experienced this first-​hand when I was Head of Research at NASA and appreciated the contributions of ETH researchers to the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars InSight mission. But ETH Zurich’s potential is much greater in terms of science, technology, and entrepreneurship,” says Thomas Zurbuchen.

Switzerland and Europe should benefit

In his new role, he would like to elevate space research to a new level not only at ETH Zurich, but also throughout Switzerland and Europe. “The space sector is dynamic and experiencing rapid global growth. We want to ensure that Switzerland and Europe seize new opportunities, remain competitive, and increase their international visibility. Personally, I think ETH Zurich is the best place to advance these visions,” explains the former NASA Science Director.

Starting in August 2023, he will support ETH researchers in expanding cooperation with the space industry and in taking on leading roles in major missions at ESA, NASA, and other space agencies. To achieve these goals, he will strengthen collaboration with other universities. In addition, he will continue to work internationally as a speaker and consultant, which is why he will work for ETH Zurich on a 60 percent basis. Thomas Zurbuchen would like to achieve his goals within the next three years, this is the reason that his appointment has been defined for an initial three-​year term.

New master's degree in space science

In addition to expanding research and knowledge transfer, his focus as an ETH professor will be on teaching, "I want to launch one of the world's best interdisciplinary master's degree programmes in space science and technology in order to train the next generation of space leaders," says Zurbuchen.

“This and other goals of the former NASA director coincide with the strategic plans of the ETH,” says ETH Zurich President Joël Mesot. "That's why I'm all the more pleased that Thomas Zurbuchen decided to join ETH Zurich despite numerous offers from top universities around the world. I'm convinced that space research in Switzerland and throughout Europe will benefit enormously.”

This article was first published on 25 May by ETH Zurich. 

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